Watch any late night infomercials and you’re bound to see dozens of gadgets that promise to strengthen your core and help you gain 6-pack abs. That would be awesome, if any of them did even half of what they claim to do.
The problem is that most of these products are based on outdated training methods and not designed to help your core do what it is designed to do (not to mention that the only way to see your abs is through your diet, but that is a story for another day).
So what is your core designed to do?
Very simply, your core muscles are supposed to brace your spine for stability. Therefore the best core exercises should be designed to prevent unwanted motion of the spine, such as bending and rotating.
I’m sure most of you are familiar with the plank exercise, which we do to prevent our spine from extending or bending backwards. Side planks help us prevent lateral flexion and deadlift exercises help us prevent flexion. So what exercises help us prevent rotation?
This is where anti-rotation exercises come in.
What Is An Anti-Rotation Exercise?
In the past, twisting crunches and Russian twists were used to train the obliques, but we now know that these types of exercises do more damage to the spine than good. Anti-rotation exercises should prevent your spine from rotation or twisting, which is especially important for your lower back.
It is important to note that your lumbar spine (bottom of your spine) is not designed for a lot of movement. Each segment is only supposed to have between 0 and 2 degrees of rotation or a total of 13 degrees.
Conversely, your thoracic spine (middle of your spine) needs to be trained for mobility as it should allow for up to 70 degrees of rotation or 6 to 9 degrees per segment.
Don’t believe me? Stand up with your feet shoulder width apart and place your hands on your hips. Now try to rotate through your lower back without allowing your hips to move. Not as easy as you thought it would be, huh?
Anti-Rotation Exercise #1: Kneeling Pallof Press
The Pallof Press is one of the first anti-rotation exercises I teach beginners since it is very simple to execute, but can be quite challenging for all levels. For those wondering, the name is coined from Boston-based physical therapist, John Pallof, credited for developing and popularizing this type of exercise.
There are many ways to execute a Pallof Press (e.g. Half-kneeling, standing, lying on your back, etc) but one of my favorites is in the tall kneeling position as it forces you to engage your glutes to remain tall.
- Position yourself perpendicular to a cable column (or where you are using a band) and move a couple feet away to allow for tension on the cable. The cable should be aligned with your mid-section.
With your stomach tight, chest tall, and shoulders back, slowly control the cable away from your body staying in-line with your sternum until your elbows are almost locked out. Pause for 2-3 seconds and return to start.
- Return to start and repeat for 10-12 repetitions. Make sure you focus on remaining tight throughout your core and controlling all motion.
- I find people often use too much weight on this exercise, which promotes unwanted movement. Keep the weight moderate and focus on breathing and staying tight through your core.
Note: you can also isometrically hold the ‘out’ position for up to 10 seconds for 3-5 reps for a greater challenge.
Anti-Rotation Exercise #2: Half Kneeling Push / Pull
This is a fantastic anti-rotation core exercise that I see performed incorrectly quite often. The purpose of this exercise is less about the pushing and pulling and more about preventing any unwanted motion in your core while you are pushing and pulling.
The half-kneeling push/pull exercise takes a little maneuvering to set up but the end result is worth it. Once you have set it up a few times you get the hang of it.
Just like the Pallof Press, this exercise can be performed in various positions but I prefer to teach it in the half-kneeling stance as it allows easier stabilization of the hips so you can focus on your core.
- Attach 2 D-grip handles to a cable column or functional trainer and set the handles between chest and shoulder height.
- Grab both handles and set up with the rear arm loaded in your armpit and the front arm straight ahead. You may have to angle yourself a bit to be comfortable with the cables.
- Simultaneously push and pull while preventing any motion in your lower back. It is okay if there is a little rotation in your upper spine but limit it as best you can.
- Make sure you keep your stomach and glutes engaged to get better recruitment of core muscles.
- Do 10-12 repetitions then switch sides and legs.
Anti-Rotation Exercise #3: 3-Point Dumbbell Row
If you have ever done a heavy dumbbell row, then you know that it can be quite demanding on your core. Any 1-arm rowing exercise is great to train anti-rotation but the 3-point row in particular absolutely torches your core if done correctly
- Step back from a bench, squat a little then lean forward and place 1 hand on the bench. Make sure the dumbbell you are using is on the floor in front of you before you start.
- Grab the dumbbell from the floor and before you start make sure that your spine is not excessively rounded or arched. Find neutral.
- Squeeze the shoulder blade towards your spine as you row then control the dumbbell back down.
- Make sure you prevent any rotation of your torso and hips.
Anti-Rotation Exercise #4: 1-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
This is an extremely humbling exercise as I found out the first time I tried to do it with the same weight I use for a bilateral dumbbell bench press. Loading one arm for a bench press hammers your core to prevent spinal rotation and also you from falling off the bench.
Not only is this a great exercise to challenge your core, pecs, shoulder and triceps but it also is helpful at addressing muscle imbalances and asymmetries, which should make it one of your staples.
- Set up how you normally would for a dumbbell bench press only with one dumbbell. Make sure to keep your shoulder blades pulled together under your body to ensure a stable press.
- I like to have the dumbbell neutral (palm facing in) or angle the dumbbell 45 degrees since it is a bit more shoulder friendly than overhand.
- Keep your stomach tight, your feet on the ground and your butt on the bench as you press. Control the dumbbell back to start making sure to keep your shoulder blades together and tight.
Note: Make sure when you are switching arms to do so by rolling the dumbbell over your chest or at least keeping it close to your chest. Never transfer the dumbbell with your arms extended or over your face for obvious reasons!
Anti-Rotation Exercise #5: Standing Cable Anti-Rotation Chop
This is another great exercise that trains your body to prevent motion through your spine as you move an object. Since you are standing, it challenges your body’s hip stability as well.
- Stand perpendicular to a cable column in an athletic stance with your feet at about shoulder width, your hips back and your chest tall.
- Grab a cable rope at chest height with a double overhand grip and rotate your arms across your body then return to start for 8-10 reps.
- Make sure to prevent any motion in your hips and lower back. If it is too stabilize your hips then widen your stance a bit and/or lower the weight.
Let us know if you have any questions about any of these anti-rotation exercises. Hope you enjoy giving them a try!
Steve is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist holding a BS in Exercise Physiology from Bridgewater State University. He is a biomechanist, personal trainer, competitive powerlifter, writer and public speaker who specializes in getting his clients strong and looking good.