Core muscles vs the core: beginner to advanced core strength training

May 16, 2022

Ever wonder how you go from a beginner level up to an advanced level in core training?

Put simply it’s about understanding how the core is designed and built and using that knowledge to select exercises that work with rather than against it. That’s why in this tutorial I go through:

  • How the core is built
  • Exercises that work against that build and design
  • Exercises that work for that build and design

Once you understand this you can start to build dynamism, movement and extra weight into the exercises you are doing without risk of injury. And in doing so you can safely and effectively take your core strength training from a beginner to an advanced level.

Four things to understand about core muscles

  1. The core is not one muscle it is one ‘unit’ of muscles:

With rectus abdominus on the front, the obliques on the side, spinal erectors on the back, transverse abdominus deeper along with quadratus lumborum (QL) and some deep spinal erectors, the trunk of our body is filled with a collection of muscles that work together.

  1. The core is made up of muscles, tendons and fascia that intertwine

The core is not just made up of muscles, it’s three layers of muscles, tendons and fascia. But these layers don’t just sit on top of one another like a lasagne, this is a collection of muscles, tendons and fascia that interconnect within and between layers.

  1. All of these muscles cross-fibre or link together

I often describe this as ‘like carbon fibre’. Ask any engineer and they’ll tell you carbon fibre is one of the strongest materials we have, yet it’s also flexible. And that’s achieved because of the way the fibres are oriented and linked within the material. To some extent our core muscles are the same. The rectus abdominus goes straight up and down, the obliques coming in diagonally, spinal erectors go top to bottom and the transverse abdominus goes around. In short, they all go in different directions, have different points of origin and insertion (that’s the places they attach to bone) and link together, or cross fibre. This is what provides our core with its strength.

  1. It’s important to choose exercises that strengthen these links

When we think about core strength and stability and exercising these muscles, it is helpful to think of them, along with the fascia and tendons, as one unit rather than separate entities. After all, when we’re moving around in the everyday, they’re all working together. That means that in each exercise we use as many of these different muscles and other elements as possible. And we strengthen the ‘cross fibres’ too.

Exercises that work against the core design

When I walk into a gym, it’s pretty common that I see people doing sit-ups, crunches, side bends, twists, back extensions and the like. These are exercises that we’ve long been told to do to strengthen our core.

But these types of exercises are a poor choice. Why? Because they go against the way the core is actually designed to work. These exercises work out individual muscles under the assumption that if we strengthen all these different muscles, it will strengthen the core as a whole. This is not the case. Exercising individual muscles doesn’t help the core as a ‘unit’, in fact, it can have the opposite effect.

Instead, we have to find exercises that activate all of the muscles at the same time and knit them all together.

Exercises that support our core to work in the way it’s designed

In the second half of the video above, you’ll find a demonstration of a couple of useful exercises that are selected specifically because they are able to exercise the core as a whole, strengthening the entire area rather than the individual muscles.

The exercises covered are the plank and side plank, but really it’s the principles behind them that I want to get across to you. There are plenty of other combinations of exercises that can be used.

Using the plank to strengthen the core muscles: beginner to advanced

We’re all familiar with the basic plank. Come down onto elbows creating a nice strong line from the shoulders down through the hips. If we can get the knees and ankles involved too that’s great. This simple position gets the anterior fibres of the core working.

As a beginner in this position, you want to do three things, build the endurance, the strength and the stability of this part of the core. The length of time you’re able to hold the plank and remain stable is interesting to measure at the beginning of your journey. And the objective, to start with, is to build up that time.

Alongside that you can also work on the side plank to work on the lateral seam of the core – the glute medius and glute minimus, obliques, QL, lats -  that’s all the muscles working from the arm pit down to the hip. Again, at the beginner level it’s about trying to build the time you can hold the position and remain stable. You’ll also want to strive for relative symmetry between the two sides. I.e. make sure you can hold the side plank on the right and the left for a roughly similar amount of time.


Once you’ve built that basic endurance in both positions, it’s time to start knitting the anterior and lateral together by adding some movement – in this case an arm raise using alternate arms. This will begin moving the tension, or load, from the centre to the sides, the anterior to the lateral, and back, as you lift and lower each arm in turn. You’ll find you’re once again having to concentrate on keeping your hips centred and stable using more of the core – building more strength and stability.

Once you’ve regained your stability and posture with this, take it up another level. Add a leg lift working with the arm diagonally opposite.

Then take it up a level again by moving between the plank and the side plank. Watch the video above for an explanation of how to do this effectively.

Start simple when it comes to core muscle training

The most important thing when starting out with this is to build endurance over just a few simple exercises - the plank, side plank, bird dog and bridge for example. This will build up the anterior, the lateral and the posterior muscles within the core.

Once you’re confident strong and stable, you’ll be able to start adding in the different movements to shift the load. In the plank example I’ve used here we’ve shifted the tension from left to right, but we could go up and down or across. It’s inserting these dynamic movements in our exercise routines that takes them up a level, it’s what moves them from beginner to intermediate to advanced.

And this is the kind of things we work through in my 12-week online programme: build your core strength and stability. We also take it further using movement and equipment – bands, balls, kettle bells, dumbbells. We branch out and challenge the core in new ways. If you’d like to find out more, click on the link above.


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