This Is One of the Best Moves To Efficiently Strengthen Your Core in a Way That *Actually* Helps You in Real Life

The term “functional core training” gets thrown around a lot, and can mean many different things. Some programs literally mimic everyday activities. Then there are regimens that focus only on “anti-rotation.” And of course there’s CrossFit-style lifting.

With so many variations out there, it can be challenging to understand what functional core training truly is. But the key is to redirect your focus away from a specific set of exercises and towards the underlying principles.

“At the heart of functional training is an exercise program that carries over effectively to daily activities,” says Phoenix-based physical therapist Tony Kottoor, DPT. “This notion that if an exercise doesn’t precisely mimic a real activity then it isn’t functional comes from a limited understanding of training. It’s much more about how an exercise mimics muscle activation.”

In other words, training that makes you more prepared for everyday activities isn’t as simple as just doing more of those activities. You want to be able to go for hikes or play basketball or clean up the backyard during winter? You’ll want to focus on activating the muscles you’ll need to do those activities safely.

“The core—which includes the abdominals, back, and hips—is a platform for effective movement,” says Alan Hsieh, a fitness and performance coach at Quantum Performance in Calabasas, California. “The core always gets a lot of attention and there’s some new training fad always coming out—you may have heard a lot about ‘anti-resistance’ training in recent years—but core training doesn’t need to be that isolated or siloed.”

Ab exercises like crunches, scissors, and Pallof presses certainly have a place. But they each miss an integral part of functional core training: movement. Once you integrate movement into an exercise, you’re now adding layers like coordination, proprioception, and balance that mimic real life.

One of the most effective ways to bring that kind of functional movement into your core routine is by doing carries—aka lifting something heavy and walking with it.

“Carries are incredibly simple, yet effective exercises because they add a dynamic load during movement that mimics real-life activities,” says Hsieh. “Whether it’s a mom who wants to get stronger, someone rehabbing from an injury, or an elite athlete training for performance, carries can unlock core strength and functional gains like few other things.”

Research on carries backs him up: The science shows they engage a multitude of core muscles. One study demonstrated how specific carrying positions for certain exercises—namely, split squats and walking lunges—can result in significant benefits.

How to safely incorporate carries into your training

If you’re itching to add carries to your training plan, it’s best to start small to avoid injury. In this four-part progression, begin with the first exercise and add it to your training plan twice per week. Once you can complete it to its final progression with relative ease, then—and only then—move onto the next exercise for the following week.

Note: Start with dumbbells that are about 10 percent of your body’s weight and progress to 45 percent as you get stronger and more comfortable with each exercise.

Exercise 1: Farmer’s carry

Find a path where you can walk straight and unimpeded for 30 seconds.
Grab two dumbbells of equal weight and place one on each side of you.
Set a timer for 30 seconds, grab each dumbbell off of the floor and walk straight ahead.
Complete five reps total

Exercise 2: Suitcase carry

Follow the same instructions as the farmer’s carry, but instead of two dumbbells, only hold onto one in one hand as you walk for 30 seconds: The key here is to fight against tilting over towards the weighted side by keeping the hips and shoulders level.
Repeat five times on each side.

Exercise 3: Walking lunge single-hand carry, ipsilateral

Grab a dumbbell and hold it by your side.
Complete 10 walking lunges leading with the leg on the same side that you’re holding the dumbbell (ipsilateral means occurring on the same side). In the video below, it’s akin to the second step taken (weight in the left hand, left leg forward).
Once completed, put the weight in the other hand and repeat on that side.

Exercise 4: Walking lunge single-hand carry, contralateral

Grab a dumbbell and hold it by your side. Complete 10 walking lunges leading with the leg on the opposite side that you’re holding the dumbbell (contralateral means occurring on the opposite side). In the video above, it’s akin to the first step taken (weight in the left hand, right leg forward).
Once completed, put the weight in the other hand and repeat on that side.

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