Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Programming Core Workouts - Part 1

I think "core" workouts are one the grayest areas of program design for any kind of exercise plan. I'm going to start off by describing what I think are the two key elements:
  1. Defining a complete program
  2. Establishing objectives

Complete Program

Our trunk muscles are arranged into three primary groups: front, back and oblique. While there is clearly more going on than just this, it is a good, functional starting point for understanding them.

Front - (rectus abdominis, iliopsoas, rectus femoris) These muscles produce forward flexion and prevent extension of the spine. In fencing we will hardly need to flex forward at the waist, but we do require good anti-extension. Anti-extension will help us form overhead guards with good posture, strike with good structure and resist grappling. Forward flexion will occasionally be used to duck especially in unarmed fighting.

Back - (erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, glutes) These muscles produce back extension and prevent flexion of the spine. For swordfighting we will normally use these muscles to resist flexion. Example actions include maintaining good posture with forward extended guards and retaining an upright posture as you lunge. Extension is used in dodging backwards, such as against a thrust to the face, and in some grappling techniques.

Oblique - (external obliques, internal obliques, quadratus) These muscles are involved in two movement patterns.
  • Lateral Flexion i.e. bending to the side and preventing the same. Used primarily for lateral stability while moving explosively and occasionally for slipping an attack.
  • Rotation and anti-rotation. Anti-rotation is used primarily to keep the torso aligned correctly for good structure with attacks and defenses.
These three elements define a complete program and three exercises to target each aspect is enough for a single day's core workout.


Our primary use for these muscles is to hold our core still while our limbs move around it. To maintain good posture and structure as we fight. The largest demand on these objectives is created during very intense moments such as lunge or passing attacks, and defenses against powerful blows.

The demand is high force production for a brief moment in time.

As such our exercises should be geared towards keeping the core stiff and motionless at high-intensity, with a secondary aspect of moving the rest of the body while doing the same. Long duration and high rep exercise programs do not achieve these objectives.


Let's start with a really basic approach. Subsequent posts will expand on this topic, but this is a good starting point. For each of these 30 seconds is sufficient for a set. Add weight when you can easily to 45-60 seconds to bring the time back down to 30.

Side Plank
Hip Bridge


Programming for the core need not be complex nor does it need to be a time consuming part of the workout. But this only makes sense in the situation where you are doing a complete strength training program, as I've described before. For instance, one arm dumbbell rows are an anti-rotation exercise, so a day with those and side planks is a complete workout for the oblique muscle groups.

(Parts II, III, IV and conclusion about programming)

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