Situps. Crunches. Russian Twists. These abdominal training dinosaurs still show up in hunting fitness programs even though they should have been left to fossilize long ago. While the burn they produce might feel productive, situps and their brethren don’t effectively train your core for hunting.
Let’s talk about core personal training that builds muscle while strengthening your core, which will help you drag bucks, climb trees, and pack out while avoiding injury.
Why Not Situps?
Understanding why you should say no to situps necessitates understanding core musculature and function. I’m not going to overwhelm you with an anatomy lesson, but here are some basics.
The core is actually several distinct muscle groups. The diaphragm, pelvic floor, and multifidus are deep within the core of the upper body. They help you breathe and stabilize your spine.
You’ll find the abdominal muscles — the transverse abdominis, internal and external obliques, and the rectus abdominis — layered over top of the deeper core muscles on the front and sides of your body. While they assist with respiration, these muscles also keep you upright. They resist forces imposed on your body, like a pack shifting on your back. And they transfer force from your limbs and into the ground, or whatever object you’re torquing on, like dragging a deer.
On the backside of your body are the paraspinal muscles. Think back straps. These muscles move and protect your spine.
The main functions of the body’s core strength are breathing, stabilizing and protecting the spine, resisting forces, transferring forces, and moving your torso.
Situps maybe help a bit with that last function. Mostly what situps do is wear out your hip flexors. That’s right; during the motion of this old staple of an abs exercise, the hip flexors are doing most of the work. Your ab muscles are secondary in the movement of a situp, even if it feels like they’re on fire.
Training Your Core is Like Honing Any Skill
The point of any training is to improve a skill or an ability. Gross skills and functions are broken down into their individual component skills and practiced. As the individual skills improve, those advancements are incorporated into the gross skill.
Shooting a bow is a great example. You practice getting your sight picture, drawing, finding your anchor points, releasing, and your follow-through. Practicing each skill improves the gross skill: shooting your bow.
However, training drills must be well-designed. If your training doesn’t improve each micro-skill, the gross skill cannot improve. The same is true of training your core. Your core training has to improve the actual functions of the core, or you’re just burning calories. Situps are the exercise version of pissing into the wind, and heavily focusing on them as a core exercise is a common mistake.
To train the core, we build exercises based on its functions in various positions.
Core Training Positions
We train the core in four positions:
- Lying supine (face up)
- Prone/quadruped (hands and knees)
- Kneeling (on one knee or both)
In each position, concentrate on breathing effectively. Each position is also trained statically (holding still) or dynamically (adding movement). Static training teaches the core musculature to do its primary function: stabilizing and protecting the spine.
Adding dynamic movement trains it to resist and transfer forces while stabilizing the spine.
Breathe First and Get ‘Tall and Tight’
Breathing is the most fundamental core exercise. Not only does it utilize much of the core musculature, but breathing well in a position tells our body that we own that position. If our breathing mechanics are off, meaning breaths are shallow and taken by raising the shoulders, the brain thinks the body is unsafe. It can cut back on the amount of force we create while also doing some gnarly stuff to compensate, like using the “wrong” muscles to do a job.
Sound breathing mechanics are best learned in the supine position and then transferred to every other core position. Here’s a quick video lesson:
Like breathing, the “tall and tight” position applies to all four core training positions. To achieve this position, lengthen your spine as much as possible and then point your ribs at your hips and your hips at your ribs. Nailing this position creates good relationships between your core muscles so that they function optimally.
Staying tall and tight also helps lock in breathing mechanics during all core-training positions. So no matter the position or the exercise, check in with your body to make sure it’s tall and tight.
Here’s a quick video on how to lock it in:
Core Training is Anti-Movement
Picture an axle and consider its job of supporting the weight of a vehicle and transferring forces between the wheels. An axle must be stiff, or it fails at both tasks. The same is true of your core.
The core has to be rigid to support your body and transfer forces between your limbs, so to train the core, we keep it stiff and still while fighting forces that try to bend it and rotate it in every direction.
Let’s have a look at how to do that via example exercises in every core training position. A static and dynamic example is supplied for each.
Supine Core Exercises That Aren’t Situps
Static – Cook Hip Lifts
Bridge your body off of the ground by driving one foot through the ground while hugging the opposite leg to your chest.
Hold the position for sets of 10-30 seconds per side.
Dynamic – Single-Leg Lowering
If you truly want to feel your abs working while doing something productive for your body, this sneaky sumbitch gives you what you want and what you need. Here’s the trick: You must keep your lower back pressed into the ground the whole time.
Only raise and lower your legs without bending your knees to the point where you can still control your lower back and keep it flat on the floor. Do sets of 4-8 reps per side.
Prone and Quadruped Core Exercises
Static – Pushup Position Plank
While keeping your arms straight, drive yourself away from the ground so that your shoulders wrap around your rib cage. Then all of the usual plank stuff applies, like staying tall and tight and practicing good breathing mechanics. Hold it for sets of 15-60 seconds.
Dynamic – Leopard Crawls
Crawling is a great core anti-movement because all of your limbs move around your body while your midsection acts as your axle, remaining still and rigid.
To leopard crawl correctly, keep your shins parallel to the ground the entire time. Do sets of 10- to 50-yard crawls.
Kneeling Core Exercises
Static – Tall-Kneeling Pallof Hold
This sucker offers you two challenges: stay tall and tight, and don’t let any part of your body rotate from the starting position.
It looks simple, but it’s tough. Do sets of 15-30 seconds per side.
Dynamic – Half-Kneeling Lift
The half-kneeling lift challenges your core in every way possible. The force wants to rotate you, pull you to the ground, and curl your body up. You have to fight all that by keeping your mid-section rigid and moving your arms smoothly around your body.
Do sets of 4-8 reps per side.
Standing Core Exercises
Static – Standing Pallof Hold
Standing pallof holds hit you with the same deal as the tall-kneeling version, only with more gravity. That means you have to focus even more on stabilization, position, and breathing.
Do sets of 15-30 seconds per side.
Dynamic – Carry Variations
Carrying heavy stuff is the ultimate dynamic core training with a specific application to hunting. Whether carrying in a duck blind or dragging out a buck, hunters always seem to have something heavy in their hands while taking a long walk.
For variations, sets, and reps, check out this article.
When To Do Core Training
Core training is versatile and fits into every part of a strength training workout. I’ve seen the best results by programming it during warm-ups, during power training, and in between sets of main strength exercises like squats and deadlifts. Which you choose depends on your current fitness level.
If you’re just getting back into shape, keep your core training to a few sets of one or two exercises during your warm-up or during power training at the beginning of a session. If you’ve been training for a while, add these exercises to any part of your strength training workouts. But whatever you do, forget about old-school situps.