The Best Core Exercises for Weightlifters
by USA Weightlifting
The good thing about lifting heavy weights is you get stronger not just in the muscles you are using to lift the weights, but often in the core and supportive muscles groups too. Some lifters seek to develop a stronger core, maybe to aid in core stability in lifts, or simply to increase injury resilience.
Either way, most of your formal weightlifting training and movements will build sufficient core strength when done properly. Movements like front squats, overhead squat and presses, cleans, and deadlifts all build serious amounts of core strength and muscle.
If you are looking to add some extra core work however, you can do so by adding an exercise (or two) at the end of your training session to develop the abdominals, obliques, and lower back muscles.
Below, you can find a list of some of the most valuable core specific movements for Olympic lifting below, as well as an explanation of how to add direct core training into a weightlifting training schedule.
Best Core Exercises for Weightlifters
Hanging Leg Lift
The weighted plank is a good way to add a little more love to the entire core. Often, movements like front squat, push presses, and heavy lifts force the core to remain contracted and stable for long periods of time, however the loading can be more fatiguing on the legs of back before the core gives out (not a bad problem to have).
By adding the weighted plank after your main lifts, you can shift the emphasis to the core specifically, and reinforce your existing core strength.
Benefits of the Weighted Plank
Mimics the bracing and pelvis/spinal stability needs of heavy squats and overhead movements
Can help address weak core and bracing in lifters
Helps to isolate poor pelvic and lumbar control under load, which can help to improve injury resilience and spinal awareness
How to Do the Weighted Plank
When doing the weighted plank, opt for the elbow and forearms on the ground version, rather than the hands fully extended (as if you are in the top of the push up).
This will take loading off the shoulders and help you solely target the core muscles the most. Assume a good elbow plank position with your feet together, and stack some plates on your lower/mid back.
Make sure you are not allowing your lower back to arch (think about pushing your lower back into the plates).
The lower back is an important area of the core that often gets forgotten behind the abs and obliques. A strong lower back helps assist in trunk stability, and can add rigidity to the torso under heavy loads.
In addition to helping improve trunk stability and injury resilience, the back extension can be used to help improve lower back strength needed for heavy cleans, snatches, and squats.
Benefits of the Back Extension
Increases lower back strength needed for heavy pulls, positional strength in the Olympic lifts, and squats
Helps to improve injury resilience again lower back injuries
Allows you to train the lower back more directly with less loads than other compound movements
How to Do the Back Extension
Set the pad at a height that is below the hips, to allow the hips to flex as you lower your upper torso downwards. When doing this, try to keep your lower back flat.
As you lower yourself down, allow the upper back to go into thoracic flexion. Lift the chest up, making sure to use it mid back and erectors, and not to hyperextend your lower back at the top (often an issue of trying to come up too high).
You can add weight to this by holding a plate (or a few) in the front of the chest, or have a partner place a barbell on the upper back in the same spot you would perform good mornings.
The weighted side bend can be used to increase oblique strength. Side bends are also great for increasing lateral flexion (and improving your ability to resist lateral flexion).
While flexing the torso laterally may not seem to be a common issue, it can definitely impact any trunk loaded movement.
Benefits of the Side Bend
Increases lateral stability necessary for front, back, and overhead loaded lifts
Develops the obliques, which can help to develop the entire musciliniture of the core
Strengthens the torso, without restricting torso mobility
How to Do the Side Bend
Start by standing upright, with a weight in one hand. You can use a loaded barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, or any other means or resistance.
Stand tall, with your hands down to your sides. Allow the truck to bend laterally, in the direction of the load. Feel the stretch on the side of the body, and then contract those muscles to return to the upright position.
Make sure to be slow and controlled with this movement, and to not jerk your body and head to move the load.
Movements like the snatch and jerk have you support loads overhead, however you can also do overhead carries with dumbbells or kettlebells to increase core stability (and overhead stability).
This is often done with less weight that you would snatch or jerk with, however because you are walking, the instability overhead creates the need to improve dynamic core stability, muscle coordination, and focus under load.
Benefits of the Overhead Carry
Improves dynamic core stability, which can translate to more athletic based movements
Increases overhead and scapular stability, in addition to core stability
Can be a great way to build core strength while also patterning better pelvic and spinal alignment
How to Do the Overhead Carry
Place two weights overhead, one in each hand. You can also do this with a barbell, however sometimes it is best to use other pieces of equipment since most weightlifters exclusively train with a barbell. With the loads in the proper overhead position, contract your core muscles and be sure to pull the ribs downwards into the body, rather than letting them flare upwards. Once you have found a stable position, start walking, and ensure you do not lose the rib cage positioning or stability overhead.
Hanging Leg Lift
The hanging leg lift can be done by hanging from a pull up bar or even in a Roman chair. Both variations are great for increasing abdominal strength and also increasing hip flexor strength. Both the hip flexors and abdominals are responsible for hip flexion, and play a crucial role in pelvic stability in all squats, lifts, and overhead movements.
Benefits of the Hanging Leg Lift
Increases abdominal and hip flexor strength
Can be done by hanging on a pull up bar to also increase grip strength
Easily regressed (into knee pull ups) to suit all fitness levels
How to Do the Hanging Leg Lift
Find a pull up bar, and grab the bar with a shoulder width grip. With your feet together, and head between your arms, lift the legs upwards in front of you as high as you can, making sure to lift them under control.
As you get to the top of the movement, try to briefly pause, and then slowly lower the legs without losing tension in the abs.
Many lifters will allow their lower back to go into hyperextension, do not do this. It can be helpful to lower your legs down to the point that the toes are roughly 6-12 inches out in front of you.
The dead bug is a wonderful exercise to build deep core strength and also help address incorrect alignment of the lumbar spine/pelvis. You can perform these with bodyweight, or against resistance bands, however it is key to never lose contact with the lower back and the floor. When done right, this can help increase core stability in squats, deadlifts, and all other lifts, and also help lifters situate their hips and spine to improve the back angles of their front squat, squat, and lifts.
Benefits of the Dead Bug
Addresses lower back pain and misalignment
Helps lifters understand proper pelvis and lumbar spine positioning needed for lifts
Increases core strength and stability, under load, in similar joint angles as lifting
How to Do the Deadbug
Lie on your back on the floor, with your hips and knees bent at 90 degrees and feet in the air. Your hands should be fully extended, reaching straight up to the sky. The lower back needs to be flat against the floor. This is critical. This will be the primary focus on this exercise as you move your limbs.
Some lifters will struggle just to hold that position for time. After you can hold that position for 30-60 seconds, you can kick and extend your left leg out so that it almost touches the ground, while simultaneously reaching your right arm backwards towards the floor.
As you move your limbs, your lower back will want to come off the floor… do not allow that to happen. If you extend your limbs and keep your lower back on the ground, then do smaller limb movements to start. After you complete one side, reset and repeat this with your right leg and left arm moving outwards away from you.
This is an exercise that you can really add some muscle to your midsection. By using cables, you can add load and do heavier, direct ab training. You can also do this with a resistance band attached to a pull up bar above you, however the cable allows you to really add some heavy loads and train the abs to get stronger. The stronger the abs are, the more stability you will have.
Benefits of the Cable Crunch
One of the best ways to train the abs directly and build serious muscle and strength
Can load the abs up with heavy loads without adding loading to other parts of the body
How to Do the Cable Crunch
Start by facing a cable weight stack. With either a rope or triangle attachment, take one step back from the cable system and place both knees on the floor.
With the attachment in your hands, place the hands by the ears and keep them there throughout the movement.
Lean forward slightly as you are in the kneeling position, and feel the abs contract under the load of the weight. When ready, use the abs to pull the face towards the floor, and make sure you are pulling with the arms to assist the movement. As you get to the bottom, tuck your chin towards your chest, and contract the abs for a few seconds, then come upwards to the starting position.
If you do not feel these, make sure you are not sitting back on your heels too much, but rather leaning slightly forward. This is best done with moderate to heavy loads for 10-20 reps, making sure to pause at the bottom and come up slowly.
How to Mix Weightlifting and CoreTraining
A good weightlifting program will cover a good amount of your core training. Front loaded movements like front squats, cleans, amd pressing all do a wonderful job of increasing core strength. In addition to those movements, heavier lifts all require you to brace and have good core stability.
If you are looking to add some more core to your workouts, you need to make sure you are not doing them in excess, which could end up decreasing your performance in the competition lifts (due to your trunk being fatigued).
Generally speaking, aim to add one core specific movement to the end of your workout, and do anywhere between 2-4 sets. You can do these with loads (5-10 reps), or for more reps (10-20 reps).
I recommend you make sure to choose one lower back movement (back extensions), one abdominal or oblique movement (cable crunch, hanging leg lift, side bends), and one “total core” movement (plank, overhead carry, deadbug) per week.
Direct core training, in most programs, should not take up more than 10-20% of your training time. A good weight lifting program already includes a high amount of core training simply through heavy lifts, front loaded strength movements, and bracing. Adding in core specific work can be beneficial for some lifters, however it should not steal training time away from your competition and strength lifts (or stealing recovery).