Improve core strength with unilateral movements

Improve core strength with unilateral movements

Struggling to find time for your ab training? Not in love with ab training in general? In this post, I’ll show you how I exploit unilateral movements to improve core strength as part of my regular workout programming.

Frankly, I’ve never been one to do a lot of ab training, and as a result my core is definitely not as robust as I’d like.

I understand good core strength is important, and how that translates to a stable foundation for a whole host of other movements. I just don’t enjoy ab training.

My current training program has me hitting my whole body, three days a week. And so long as keep rest intervals tight, I can complete each of the workouts in a little over the hour. There’s certainly not a lot of time left for endless planks, ab-wheel roll-outs and hanging leg raises.  None the less, as a long-term sufferer of various lower back problems, I need to work on improving my core strength. It’s not optional.

So I’ve gotten a little more creative with my overall programming, and now I’m hitting my core, pretty hard, three times a week… and not crunch in sight!

Essentially, by opting to do a lot of unilateral (single-arm/leg/sided) movements, I am working my core extensively throughout the entirety of the workout.

Here’s how the movements break down:

Bow draws

I am not sure if I invented this, but it’s a great alternative to the traditional face-pulls. I call it a bow draw, because if you’ve ever tried archery or drawn a traditional hunting bow, it’s exactly like that.

  • Set-up in front of a standard adjustable-height pulley, like the one you’d find with a typical cable-crossover station.
  • Standing in front of the pulley, extend your lead arm so that it’s straight out in front of you, just as if you were holding a bow.
  • Set the pulley height level with that lead arm. This way, when you draw the cable back, the line of resistance will be perpendicular to the floor.
  • Stand with your lead foot pointing forward, inline with the cable path, and your rear foot at 45 to 90 degrees. Basically, a bog standard archery stance.
  • Draw the cable back in straight line, across your body, using only the muscles of your upper back.
  • Pause, with your draw hand by your ear, and the cable touching your cheek.
  • Return with control. Repeat.

How does this hit your abs, you ask? Well, without having a bow to hold with the lead hand, i.e. something to counter the drawing force, your core has to stabilize and stop your body from twisting and pulling forward. Start light, and get the movement down, but your quickly notice the core working as the reps and load increases.

Pallof press with rotation

The Pallof press is a well-known exercise for overall core stability — so no claims of me having invented this. However, I do see this exercise being horribly abused, with people loading the exercise with the entire weight stack and basically wrestling with the cable just to stay upright and resist the 140 pounds of shearing force trying to topple them over.

Keep the loads here sensible.

You should not really be straining your arms, pecs or shoulder structure when holding and pressing the cable. Direct all the force through your core.

I think the challenge here is that this doesn’t just happen, it really takes a light load and conscious thought to resist the forces using only your core. But when you do, and you make that mind-muscle connection, you’ll instantly feel your abs working, and working hard.

Now for the rotation.

It’s subtle; very subtle. We are not talking anything like an extra 90 degree turn away from the line of force. At most, it’s 45 degrees, and even 30 degrees will do it, but only if the rotation is driven from your core. Said differently, it’s very easy to start the rotation using the upper body, entirely negating the added core work.

If you are still struggling to visualize the rotation, think of it like this. In the standard Pallof press, your arms are out in front at 90 degrees (perpendicular) to the line of force. That’s why it works your core. The rotation takes you an extra 30 to 45 degrees away, so a total of 120 to 135 degrees away from the line of force.  

Single-arm DB floor press

There’s plenty of instruction out there on the dumbbell floor press, so I won’t go into a detailed set-up here. In fact, there’s an excellent T-Nation article where they cover the DB floor press in detail, and actually go on to expound the benefits of the unilateral (single arm) version.

I’ve always loved the floor press. While not without some setup difficulties at heavier loads, the position ultimately limits your range of motion, reducing the stretch in the shoulders. The movement also usually starts from the bottom, a dead-start that leads to a unique loading force, creating a lot of strength that can translate well to that in the hole position (bottom) of your bench press.

The single-arm variant creates a lot of shearing forces through the body, and your core and glutes will work overtime to resist the rotational force. I can almost feel my abs and deep core muscles working as hard as my pecs!

Note, the unilateral version of this exercise does afford you a top starting position if you prefer that. i.e. you press the weight into the starting position with two arms, and then begin pressing with a traditional eccentric start.

Single arm DB overhead press

As with the DB floor press, I’ve long since used the DB press as my primary overhead movement. Using dumbbells or kettlebells for pressing eliminates stress on my shoulders by allowing me to fine-tune my grip, supination and overall range of motion. It certainly eliminates the stress placed on my shoulder girdle in the racked or bottom position of a barbell press.

Another advantage to the dumbbells? You guessed it… the option of performing a unilateral press.

Again, the key to maximum core engagement with the unilateral press is maintaining an upright torso. At both the bottom and top of the pressing movement, your body should look exactly like you were pressing two dumbbells at the same time. Leaning your body to one side and moving the load and line of force over your center of gravity will certainly allow you to use more weight on the press. But it will also largely eliminate the need for your abs to stabilize your body, leaving valuable improvements in core strength on the table.

If you are not sure whether you are maintaining an upright body position, do a few sets in front of a mirror. Using your core strength, hold an upright body position throughout the full range of the pressing movement. As your working arm drives out and up toward lockout, the dumbbell will also move out, further away from your body, increasing the load on your core. Place your free hand on your opposing obliques and feel how hard your core is working.

KB front squat

I can not front squat with a barbell. I just can’t. I don’t have anything like the shoulder flexibility needed to properly rack a barbell, and every time I try, I just end-up hurting myself. I also have very pronounced collar bones, and despite carrying a decent amount of muscle in my delts, a barbell just happens to sit directly on the bone.

In addition to providing excellent stimulus for the quads, the front squat is a great exercise for improving upper back development and increasing core strength.

So while the traditional front squat is off the cards for me, I can still comfortably front squat using a pair of decently heavy kettlebells.

Just as with the barbell front squat, with the kettlebells sitting just slightly in front of my center of gravity, I can feel my upper back and core working hard throughout the movement. If you haven’t tried the front squat, give it a go, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

If your form starts to break down, chances are you are failing to keep a tight core. Focus on your breathing, take a decent breath (if not a full valsalva) at the top of the movement, and contract your abs hard through the full range of motion. Another possibility is that you are not squeezing the muscles of your upper back, which can cause rounding and shift your center of gravity too far forward.

Suitcase carry

The suitcase carry is a great alternative to the tried and tested farmers walk, basically a loaded carry that works your grip, core and lungs to the extreme. However, if you are really serious about improving your core strength, leave one of the dumbbells on the rack and work the suitcase carry instead.

Without the opposing dumbbell to stabilize the load, you’ll want to pick a lighter weight than you normally would for your farmers walk. Don’t believe me? Just wait until you’ve tried walking a decent distance with an uneven load. It’s crazy hard.

I carry the dumbbell for distance, alternating runs between arms. It’s not far, maybe 25 yards out and 25 yards back. But with zero rest between runs, it’s a ball-buster on the lungs too! As a result, I put the suitcase carry at the end of my workout and use it as an all around finisher.

When carrying the dumbbell, try to keep an upright body position as best you can. That means shoulders back, attempting to keep the dumbbell away from the legs, and walking with as normal a gait as you can manage. No matter what, as shoulder, grip and core strength wains through the sets, your form will begin to degrade. It’s unavoidable, but just make sure there’s no acute pains that suggest you’ve gone to far.

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