One of the staple principles of good weight training is to emphasize compound (multi-joint) exercises, and to supplement those movements with some isolation (single-joint) oriented exercises. Interestingly, rarely do you see the principle of using compound movements utilized when it comes to training the core – in that, many of the most popular and commonly use core exercises are isolation-oriented.
However, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research sought to determine whether integration (i.e., compound) core exercises that require activation of the distal (away from the center of the body) trunk muscles (deltoid and gluteal) elicit greater activation of primary trunk muscles in comparison with isolation core exercises that only require activation of the proximal trunk muscles. The results of this study indicate that the activation of the abdominal and lumbar muscles was the greatest during the exercises that required deltoid and gluteal recruitment.
The researchers of this study concluded that, “An integrated routine that incorporates the activation of distal trunk musculature would be optimal in terms of maximizing strength, improving endurance, enhancing stability, reducing injury, and maintaining mobility.” In other words, a comprehensive core training routine, like every other muscle group, should emphasize compound exercises and supplement with some isolation moves as well.
Since you’re already familiar with traditional isolation exercises, the goal of this article is to provide you a comprehensive list of compound core exercises you can immediately use to build a stronger and more functional core.
Compound Core Training
Contrary to popular misconception, the “core” is not just your abs and lower back; it’s all of your torso muscles (shoulders, glutes, abs, mid-back, lats, etc.) minus your extremities (arms and legs). The compound core exercises we’ve included, although each trains and strengthens the body in a slightly different manner, all have one thing in common: They require a high activation of your core muscles in order to resist unwanted movement at your torso, maintain your posture and body position while your extremities create movement by lifting the load.
Angled Barbell (aka Landmine) Rainbow
Setup: Place one end of a barbell in a corner or into a Sorinex landmine device (from Sorinex.com). Hold the other end of the barbell with both hands at roughly your eye level with your elbows slightly bent. Stand tall with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart.
Action: Move the barbell from side to side in a rainbow-like fashion while you rotate, without allowing your hips or shoulders to rotate.
• Maintain a tall posture throughout this exercise.
• Do not allow your spine to bend sideways or flex forward at any point.
• The farther you extend your arms away from your body, the more difficult you make this exercise.
• The closer you keep the barbell to your body (i.e., the more you bend your elbows), the easier you make this exercise.
• It’s best to use weight plates 25 pounds or less to add load to the bar, as larger weight plates restrict your range of motion in order to prevent them from hitting your body.
• Perform 2-4 sets of 10-15 reps per side.
One-Arm Dumbbell Farmer’s Walk
Setup: Stand tall holding a heavy dumbbell on the right side of your body by your right hip.
Action: Walk up and down the length of a room, keeping the dumbbell by your hip and maintaining your strong, upright posture. Then switch hands and repeat by holding a dumbbell on the other side.
• Use a weight load that you can carry on one side for no more than 45-60 seconds. Rest roughly 30 seconds if needed before switching hands and carrying the dumbbell on the other side for another 45-60 seconds.
• Grip strength as well as core strength can be a limiting factor in the weight you’re able to carry, which also makes this exercise a great tool for improving your grip strength as well.
• Perform 3-5 sets.
Cable Chop (Low to High)
Setup: Stand perpendicular to a cable column that is on your left side, holding the handle with both hands that’s attached to the lowest position. Your feet should be slightly wider than shoulder-width.
Action: Squat down and simultaneously shift most of your weight to your left leg while your arms are at a downward angle reaching toward the origin of the cable. Stand up while simultaneously shifting your weight towards your right leg as you also drive the cable at a diagonally upward angle across your body. Finish at the top with your arms above your head on your right side. Reverse the motion back to the starting position and repeat.
• Your torso should remain fairly perpendicular to the cable column. Do not rotate your torso away from the cable column as you reach the top of the range of motion of the exercise. Doing so greatly reduces the tension on your torso muscles.
• Perform this exercise both eccentrically and concentrically in a smooth and coordinated fashion between your weight shift and the cable moving across your body.
• Be sure to keep your spine in a neutral position throughout the exercise and to set your hips back at the bottom position.
DB Plank Rows
Setup: Holding a dumbbell in each hand, assume a push-up position with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart.
Action: Pick up the dumbbell in your right hand and row it into your body. Slowly lower it to the floor and repeat this action using your left hand. Continue to alternate hands until you’ve completed the reps indicated.
• Keep a strong and stable body position with a neutral spine throughout this entire exercise.
• Do not allow your body to shift from side to side as you perform each row.
• Do not allow your hips to rotate as you perform each row.
• Perform each row in a controlled manner by slowly lowering the dumbbell to the floor on each rep.
• To ensure the dumbbells do not roll, make sure you place your hands directly underneath your shoulders when performing this exercise.
Setup: Hold yourself in a push-up position with your feet on a Swiss ball that’s between 55-65 cm in size. (To make the exercise easier, move the Swiss ball towards your belly button.)
Action: With your body in a plank (straight) position, keep your legs straight and push your hips towards the ceiling while keeping your back flat. After straightening your hips and coming back to the start position, push your body backwards on the ball until your arms are fully extended in front of you and your legs are fully extended behind you. Reverse the motion and repeat.
• On the pike aspect of the exercise, lift your hips up until they are almost above (but not directly above) your shoulders. Once your hips do get directly above your shoulders the tension is greatly reduced on your abs, which you don’t want.
• Do not allow your lower back to sag toward the floor.
• If you feel pressure at your lower back as you perform the roll-out aspect of the exercise, you’ve gone too far beyond your strength threshold. Therefore, simply reduce your range of motion so you can perform the exercise in a pain-free manner.
• To decrease the difficulty of the exercise, you can modify the action by performing a knee tuck (instead of a pike) by bending your knees and pulling them into your chest.
• Be sure to transition through each position of each rep in a smooth manner using deliberate control.
• Perform 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps. Pause for 1-2 seconds at each end (i.e., the top of the pike and the outstretched part of the rollback) of the exercise.
Setup: Stand tall holding onto a loaded barbell with your hands placed just outside of your hip width.
Action: Keep your knees bent at a 15- to 20-degree angle. Hinge at your hips and lower your torso toward the floor as you slide the barbell down your thighs. Once your torso reaches parallel to the floor or you can no longer maintain the neutral spinal position you started with, reverse the motion by driving your hips forward and returning to the standing position.
• Do not allow your lower back to “round out.”
• Keep the barbell as close to you as possible.
• Lift the barbell by driving your hips forward, not by extending at your lower back.
Offset Dumbbell Lunge (Reverse or Walking)
Setup: Stand tall holding a dumbbell in your right hand in the “racked” position by your right shoulder.
Action for the “Reverse lunge” version: Step backward with your right leg and slowly lower your body in a controlled manner, allowing your right knee to gently touch the ground. Reverse the action by stepping your right leg back underneath you to return to the tall standing position. Repeat all the reps, stepping back with your right leg. Then switch the dumbbell to your left hand and perform all the lunges stepping back with your left leg.
Action for the “Walking lunge” version: Step forward with your left leg and drop down into a lunge position, allowing your right knee to gently touch the floor. Step forward with your right leg, standing tall, bringing your right foot next to your left foot. That’s one rep. Perform all the reps on the same side, stepping forward with your left leg in, bringing your right leg up to meet your left. Then place the dumbbell by your left shoulder and perform all reps stepping forward with your right leg.
• Both lunge variations described above have the dumbbell being held on the opposite side of the forward leg. This is done to create a cross-body loading pattern that stimulates the glutes on one side and the shoulder on the other. There is not as much activation from the gluteal muscles if the dumbbell is being held on the same side as the front leg. This will become very obvious if you experiment with this yourself.
• By holding a dumbbell on one side and not the other, much like in the single-arm farmer’s walk exercise described previously, your torso muscles have to increase their activation in order to counteract the offset load and maintain your posture in the center.
• Be sure to maintain good knee alignment on each rep.
• If you normally perform lunges holding 45-pound dumbbells in each hand, try this variation holding one 70- to 80-pound dumbbell.
• Perform 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps each leg.
Integration core exercises elicit greater muscle activation than isolation exercises. Gottschall JS, Mills J, Hastings B. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):590-6.
Photography by Jaclyn Gough
Photos taken at the BB3 Training Center in Davie, FL