Core Strength Road Map

by Nathan Tomasello

A 4 week workout plan to master an extreme core strength movement - the Plate Lay out.

One of the biggest problems I see in the gym - from casual lifters to pros - is poor core strength.  Now, since “core training” has been the fitness industry buzz word for quite some time, and everyone wanting to show off those six pack abs on Instagram, why am I still seeing lifters with weak cores?  Is it because Instagram filters have everyone tricked into thinking their midsection is stronger than it actually is? That is a possibility, however, I think the real problem is that most lifters have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it takes to achieve a strong core.  It's common for an athlete to have a strong lower back from squatting and dead lifting, but have weak abdominals.  I see guys all the time with a six pack stomach but a weak lower back. In most of these scenarios, the lifter probably does individual exercises for the muscles that comprise the core - the abdominals, the lower back, obliques, hip flexors, serratus, etc. - but may not do movements that require stability and build strength in these muscles as a whole group.  Think about it - if you want strong legs you will do heavy compound movements like squats and lunges. Accessory lifts such as leg extensions are great for toning and defining the quads, but that is not how you will build a functional, powerful lower body, much in the same way that crunch variations are not going to build a strong core.

Another problem I see with most "core" or "ab" regimens is the sheer number of reps.  A good core strengthening exercise should be like any other exercise you use to build strength and power - difficult enough that anywhere from 3-8 reps should be sufficient.  Now, trust me, I am all for high volume and marathon sets, but if you can do 100+ reps of an exercise per set, are you really building strength or just exercising? To build strong shoulders, I don't use a weight that is light enough on overhead press to do 100 reps, and you will never see me doing sets of 100 crunches to make my abs strong.  Crunch variations have their place in core training, but if you want a strong core, you have to think outside the box.

One of the things I have become known for over the years is “extreme core strength” exercises.  I regularly post videos of these compound power exercises on my Instagram (@coachmyers_gutcheck) and issue them as a challenge to my followers.  The only problem is that most of these movements are so advanced and require such a strong, well rounded core that the average Joe might not be able to complete them.  Well today I am not only going to teach you one of my favorite extreme core movements, but also provide you with a 4 week workout plan that will build the strength required to complete it…a “roadmap” so to speak. Let’s start with the exercise itself, then I will break down all of the accessory movements in the 4 week plan and explain how they fit into the core strength puzzle.

Extreme Core Strength Movement: Plate Layouts

The Plate Layout is one of the toughest exercises in my arsenal.  Start in a push up position with your feet on a 10b plate (anything that will slide will suffice, the guy who originally showed me this exercise used one of his flip-flops).  Keeping your abdominals tight and being careful to not let your hips sag, slowly drift back until your chest touches the ground, then pull your self back up into the starting position.  The goal is to keep your arms as straight as possible, although I have to admit I haven’t mastered this one completely. If you can do this movement without your elbows touching the ground, your core strength is on a whole different level.  In addition to the abdominals and lower back erectors carrying the load and stabilizing your body throughout the exercise, your lats, serratus, and triceps are all involved in moving you from point A to point B and back again.

So now that you have seen the Plate Layouts, you are probably wondering how you are going to get strong enough to make them look easy.  Here are the exercises we are going to use to build you into a core master.

Walk Outs - there are two different versions of this exercise, both of which start in a push up position, either from your knees for your feet.  Keep your abs tight and simply walk your hands out until your nose touches the ground, then walk back to the starting position.

Plank -  This is the grandaddy of core stability.  Starting a push up position, but “rest” on your forearms rather than your hands.  Keep your abs engaged and don’t wiggle around or let your hips sag.

Saws - This is a movement based plank exercise and somewhat of an extreme core strength movement in itself.  Start in a plank position and drift forwards and back as if your body is a giant saw. If you are advanced place your feet on a plate so it can slide and increase your range of motion.  Don’t let this one fool you, a little movement goes a long way.

Pikes - Start in a push up position with your feet on either a swiss ball or a plate.  Keep your legs straight and pull your feet towards your hands as your hips go up, forming an A-frame position.  For the advanced version of this exercise, the pike layout, drift back and let your feet come off of the swiss ball as it rolls up towards your waist and your arms extend.

DB Pull Overs - Although this movement works the upper abs and serratus, it is not commonly thought of as a core exercise.  I would normally group it with either back or chest day, but because of the way it utilizes the lats and triceps, it will mimic the plate layout and bring any lagging muscles up to par.  Start by laying perpendicular across a bench with your hips as low as possible. Keeping a slight bend in the elbows, let the dumbbell drift back towards the floor as you breath in. Once you feel a tremendous stretch throughout the rib cage, exhale and bring the weight back to the starting position.  Make sure to keep your hips lower than the bench throughout the movement.

Straight Arm Lat Pull Down - Ok, I know what you are thinking…”Coach Myers, I thought this was a core workout?”  Well did you know that the lats help stabilize your hips? Stability is key for core strength, and this is a great exercise for building lat strength without utilizing the biceps.  The way the lats are utilized here is very similar to range of motion of a plate layout. Start by standing and holding a lat pull down bar with a wide overhand grip. Sit your hips back slightly and keep your elbows locked as you pull the bar in an arch down towards your waist.

Reverse Hyper Extension - this is probably the single greatest isolation movement for the lower back.  If your gym doesn’t have a Reverse Hyper, you can mimic the movement by laying face down on a bench with your hips hanging off.  Grab the underside of the bench and slowly raise your legs up and straighten them as you flex your lower back and glutes. Allow your spinal erectors to relax as you lower back to the starting position.

Now its time to start with your road map to core strength.  For each workout, aim for doing the routine 2-3 times during that week.  Always take a day in between to avoid getting too tight.

Week #1

  1. Superset: 3 sets

DB Pull Overs - 8

Straight Arm Lat Pull Downs - 8

  1. Pikes 2 x 8

  1. Walk outs (from knees) 3 x 8

  1. Plank - max time

  1. Reverse Hyper - 25 total

Week #2

  1. Superset: 3 sets

DB Pull Overs - 8

Straight Arm Lat Pull Downs - 8

  1. Superset: 2 sets

Pikes - 10

Walkouts - 5 (from feet)

  1. Plank - 1 minute front, 30 seconds each side x 2 sets

  1. Reverse Hyper - 2 x 10 w/2 second hold at the top

Week #3

  1. Superset: 3 sets

DB Pull Overs - 5 reps, perform a 5 second negative on each rep

Straight Arm Lat Pull Downs - 5 reps, pause 3 seconds at the bottom of each rep

  1. Pikes Layouts (on a swiss ball)- 10
  2. Walkouts - 20 (from feet, multiple sets)

  1. Plank - 5 minutes (switch sides when necessary)

  1. Reverse Hyper - 50 total

Week #4

  1. Superset: 2 sets

DB Pull Overs - 8

Pike Lay outs - 10

Walk Outs - 5

  1. Superset: 2 sets

Straight Arm Lat Pull Downs - 8 reps

Ab Wheels - 15

Reverse Hyper - 10

  1. Saws 2 x 10

After completing week 4, it’s time to give the Plate Layouts a try (if you haven’t already).  In addition to being able to perform an exercise that may have seemed impossible 30 days prior, I am willing to bet that your other big lifts - namely squat and deadlift - have increased as your core strength has improved.  

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