You pick up (super) heavy things and you put them down. That’s the crux of powerlifting. There are no plays to memorize, no in-depth strategy to get in your opponent’s mind, and you have no teammates to rely on. It’s you vs what’s on the bar. But every sport has its own distinct strategies you can implement to improve as an athlete.
So do you know what sets the best teams and athletes apart from the rest of the pack?
It’s not always natural talent, the amount of hours practiced, or inherent intelligence. No, champions know that to be the best, they need to be more efficient. And when it comes to being more efficient as a powerlifter, if your hamstrings, quads, pecs, shoulders, and arms are strong that’s great, but if your core is weak, you’re losing efficiency.
Core Strength = Stability = Efficient Movement
Your core is not your abs. Let me repeat that: your core is not your abs. Yes, your abs are apart of your core; but there’s more to your core than just your rectus abdominus. In fact, the major muscles that are the prime movers when you squat, bench, and deadlift attach to your spine and pelvis.
And do you know what operates as your body’s anchor? Your spine and pelvis. And a stronger anchor means more stability, and more stability translates to your body being able to provide more powerful and efficient movement to your limbs.
The more efficient your core, the more power you’ll be able to transfer to your limbs to push weight off your chest or rip it from the ground. But most importantly, a strong core can keep you lifting longer and with less risk of injury.
When your core is strong and working efficiently, it better absorbs the forces on the bar. And this absorption takes pressure off your limbs, which in turn means that your body isn’t going to ask your limbs to pick up the slack due to your cores inefficiency.
Remember: champions know that to win, they need to be more efficient and not waste resources/energy on unnecessary movements.
So yes, that means you need to train your core outside of the training it gets from the big three.
You Need a Good Anterior (Core) Designer
A few years ago, a bunch of keyboard warriors claimed they didn’t do direct core work. Because, “squatting and deadlifting are enough training for your core.” You’ve come to Powerlifting University because you seek education. If you wanted the education of a weight-school drop out, then reading comment threads on websites would suffice. But you’re no drop out.
So let’s back this up with some science, shall we? We are at a University after all.
Researchers set out to discover how much trunk activation occurs during heavy weight lifting. Here’s what they found: back squats and deadlifts aren’t great for anterior core activation. They both light up your posterior core, i.e. your extensors, but they do very little for anterior core activation.
That doesn’t mean your anterior core isn’t firing while you squat or deadlift, quite the contrary. Remember, your core acts to brace your movements. So if you have a stronger anterior core, you’ll have better hip and trunk stability, which means, you’ll use your muscles more efficiently as you come out of the hole or rip the bar off the ground.
Efficient athletes are champion athletes. No powerlifter wants to grind out every single rep; that wears you down over time. What you want are for your muscles to work more efficiently. And the more efficient you become with your movements, the better you’ll be as an athlete (and human being) all around.
Here are a few exercises that will help you increase your anterior core strength and stability.
Anterior Core Exercises
- Ab Wheel Roll Out
- Pallof Press
- Pallof Press with Overhead Reach
Pallof presses are by far my favorite core exercise. But when you add in the overhead reach, you force your body to not only fight extension in your low back, but your obliques kick on to assist your rectus abdominus. And many powerlifters overlook the importance of strengthening their obliques.
Stop Being Oblivious to Your Obliques
Admit it: you neglect your obliques like the milk man neglects his redheaded offspring (is that joke too dated?).
Look, your obliques are some of the most important of your core muscles for stability. The internal obliques work as accessory muscles for respiration and the external obliques help pull your chest down and compress the abdominal cavity, which increases intra-abdominal pressure, something you need while hefting heavy weight off the ground.
Both internal and external obliques assist in rotational movements (more on this below). But they also work to fight rotation through your trunk. And building a strong and stable core that can fight rotation will not only help you lift more efficiently, but it will help prevent you from injury in your daily activities.
One arm farmers carries or suitcase deadlifts are your best options for training your obliques. Use heavy dumbbells, kettlebells, or a farmers walk bar for carries. Suitcase deadlifts can be done with kettlebells, dumbbells, or in a rack. The latter will challenge your balance at first, so start with only the bar and slowly add weight.
If you want to really feel weak and see just how not strong your obliques are, then try the shovel lift. It’s the fastest way to humble yourself before the gods of iron, period.
Raise your hand if you’ve seen people in the gym doing side bends to “work” their obliques. Sure, you’ll work your obliques by bending to the side, but you’re not really working on increasing the stability function of your obliques.
If you want to build obliques that can stabilize your core like the iron pillars of the Empire State Building, then you need to do shovel lifts (or shovel deadlifts).
The shovel lift isn’t complicated to perform. Though, I’ll advise you to start this movement in a rack with the barbell at shin height. Load one end of the barbell, but please, don’t load that much weight, 10-25 pounds is all you’ll need. Once you’re loaded with weight, grab the unloaded end with one hand and place your other hand at the midway point of the bar. Engage your core, squeeze your glutes, and lift the bar to the standing position. Make sure you maintain a neutral spine throughout.
You’re gonna laugh at how much your ass gets kicked with a small amount of weight at first. But after awhile, you’ll get the hang of it and the awkwardness goes away. Again, you don’t need to hammer this movement with a ton of weight. Keep it light and perform 3-4 sets of 4-6 reps per side.
As a powerlifter, you don’t want rotation happening when you’re on the platform. But it’s still beneficial for you to train rotational movements. And a movement like the kettlebell windmill can challenge your core stability more than a plank or pallof press.
Kettlebell windmills require you to rotate through your thoracic spine. Because of this rotation, your rectus abdominus has to work in tandem with your obliques to stabilize your torso. If your day job requires you to sit at a desk all day, the kettlebell windmill will help you build more mobility and stability in your shoulders. And remember: it’s all connected. So you want total body strength as a powerlifter.
There’s another advantage to the kettlebell windmill. It places your glutes in a larger range of motion and requires them to fire more intensely to keep your hips stable while your anterior core works to maintain a neutral back.
Since this article has started, I’ve done nothing but talk about your anterior core and your obliques. Now, you’d think after I said that your abs aren’t your core that I would have mentioned muscles like your multifidus, psoas, erector spinae, and those glorious glutes. But I haven’t.
The first three you’ll strengthen through normal programming, but your glutes play a key role in all three powerlifts. It’s the most powerful muscle in your body and it plays a huge role in stabilizing your pelvis and trunk.
Do More Butt Stuff
One of the primary drivers behind keeping your hips stable and strong, the glutes, are often one of the most under trained muscles of the body. Your glutes should be among the strongest, if not the strongest, muscles in your body. They’re essential to unleashing your athletic potential, and when they operate optimally in line with your core, they help you move more efficiently.
But they also aid in preventing low back pain, sustaining a healthy posture, and let’s be honest: they make you look better.
When it comes to building size and strength in your glutes, hip thrusts are the way to go. But train with multiple variations of them throughout the week:
- Single Leg
One of the best exercises you can do to test your hip strength and stability is the step down. Yes, it’s a bodyweight exercise, something I’m sure a powerlifter like you shies away from. But it isolates your glutes and forces you to activate all the core muscles I’ve already mentioned above.
Your glutes can handle a lot of volume. They’re pretty resilient. So adding some form of hip thrust into every training day isn’t going to prevent you from making gains. But in all the core movements I’ve mentioned already — pallof presses, planks, kettlebell windmills — you need to make sure you’re squeezing your glutes to keep your pelvis is in a slight posterior tilt.
You Can’t Score without Core
As I was writing this article, I witnessed something that was the epitome of efficient movement: During the second week of the NFL season, the reigning Super Bowl Champions, The New England Patriots, had their entire field goal unit on the field to kick the ball with less than 10 seconds to go in the half.
In less time than it took me to write this entire sentence, a team of 11 players hurried to their positions, set up for the play, and executed a field goal. That, my friends, is the epitome of efficiency.
When your core is bracing, supporting, and engaging the way it’s supposed to, your body will operate more efficiently. For you that means less energy wasted to pull weight, which could mean more energy conserved for a later attempt, but it also means that your body will be operating in it’s most effective manner.
And the champions who take home the best lifts are both effective and efficient. Don’t let your core be the weak link that keeps you from finishing at the top.