September is so close you can almost hear the bugling of a bull elk in the distance. If all goes to plan, you’ll be hiking that big boy out of the mountains in quarters. You’ve been rucking to prepare, but adding some simple core training will have your hips, back, and shoulders healthy for a heavy pack-out. There’s still time to make some elk-season gains with these core-targeting exercises, which can be worked right into your weekly training routine.
The human body’s core includes the muscles in the torso, hips, and backs of the legs. Combined, the core performs several critical functions, including facilitating respiration, protecting the spine, and transferring force to your limbs while you move your meat wagon around the earth.
Rucking Demands on the Core
The weight of a heavy pack exerts forces that can overextend the lumbar spine and rotate and laterally flex the entire spine as a person walks and moves. If your core isn’t stable, those external forces make movements inefficient, wasting energy and potentially leading to injury. Plus, overextending the spine messes up breathing mechanics, which means you’ll tire out in a hurry.
The exercises below will help your body resist the forces imposed on it by a heavy pack while increasing endurance.
Inhale and exhale through the nose. Don’t be a mouth breather. Breaths should fill the entire torso with air, starting low in the belly and rising into the chest. This is the most efficient way to breathe, and doing so will increase endurance and is necessary for optimal core function.
Tall and Tight Position
When training the core, it’s crucial to find the “tall and tight” position. This is done by making the spine as long as possible from the buttocks to the cranium, with the ribs pointed at the hips and the hips pointed at the ribs.
This position makes breathing much easier and creates tension in the midsection, making your core as rigid as possible. Two of the core’s main functions are respiration and spinal protection, and proper core positioning aids both.
This training focuses on strengthening the anterior aspect of your core (your abs) to help control spinal extension by keeping the midsection still and rigid while resisting a force. This will help you avoid overextending your spine when rucking. The two fundamental anti-extension exercises are variations of planks and deadbugs.
2 to 3 sets, 5 to 8 reps per side
2 to 3 sets, 30 seconds to 1 minute
2 to 3 sets, 5 to 10 reps
Like anti-extension training, anti-rotation training helps the body resist spinal rotation through rigidity. Exercises like the Pallof press and its variations require the core to resist a force attempting to rotate the body. Remember, maintain the tall and tight position and focus on good breathing mechanics for maximum benefits.
2 to 3 sets, 8 to 15 reps per side
Pallof Press Shuffle
2 to 3 sets, 30 seconds per side
Anti-Lateral Flexion Training
In addition to training your core to resist extension and rotation, you must also train it to resist lateral flexion of the trunk, aka bending to the right or left. The side plank is the most basic anti-lateral flexion exercise. You can make this exercise a little nastier by following the progression outlined below to Copenhagen side planks.
2 to 3 sets, 15 seconds to 1 minute per side
Copenhagen Side Plank
2 to 3 reps, 15 seconds to 30 seconds per side
Plank transfers and suitcase carries are great exercises that combine the various elements of core motion resistance training above, and they’re great for overall core conditioning.
2 to 3 sets, 30 seconds to 1 minute
2 to 3 sets, 30 seconds to 1 minute per side
When To Do Core Training
Pick one or two exercises from each category and work them into your training week. Do them during your warmups, in between sets of strength exercises, or in the case of carries and plank transfers, as a finisher.
Unilateral training (one limb at a time) adds more spice. Only training one limb or loading one side of your body forces your core to resist extension, rotation, and flexion.
Adding cat-cows to your routine, and doing them frequently, will maintain a healthy spinal range of motion, and healthy spinal movement is as important as core strength. You want a core strong enough to prevent your pack from ripping you around, but at the same time, you don’t want to turn into the tin man.