Cannons, Canoes, Crunches, Cores

“You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe” is a somewhat overused, but nonetheless valid statement often used by personal trainers and exercise coaches.

I remember first hearing it when I was just a young sproutling of a trainer many moons ago, and it’s always stuck with me. The principle behind it is all about stability. In order to effectively fire a cannon, it has to be secured to a stable surface. Likewise, if I’m going to get someone to press a weight over their head, they are going to need a strong and stable body to press from or the results could get somewhat messy.


The basis of a good, stable body begins with a stable core. Unfortunately the core is an area often neglected these days, especially by weightlifters. But here’s a little visual I want you to imagine. Think of a little man. Give that little man strong, powerful legs. Now, give your little man a strong, powerful upper body. And now, let’s make his middle part soft and squidgy like a marshmallow.

Excellent. So, there’s our little man with no core. What’s he doing now? Oh look, he’s picked up a barbell and is going to do some squats. My, that looks heavy. The bar is on his back and he’s gone down. Now, dear reader, what is going to happen when he pushes back up, since his middle is made of marshmallow?

That’s right, its going to squash and compress. This is a) going to make the squat a lot harder to perform as his body isn’t working in unison and b) put a whole lot of strain on his spine, as that is where most of the load will now be carried.

So how do we strengthen our core?

“Sir, sir! Crunches Sir!!”

Look around any big gym in Britain, or even the world, and in a corner you will see a guy doing crunches. Hundreds of them. Hundreds and hundreds of crunches at the end of his workout.
Come back a year later and he’ll still be there crunching away. Will he have a rippling 6-pack? Probably not. Will he have a core capable of holding up houses upon? Again, probably not.

Crunches on their own are not an effective way to train your abs or core.

In order to workout your core effectively we need to go back, way back and think for a minute about what your abs are for.

Your abs, believe it or not, were not designed to lure in the sexy members of the opposite sex when you flash them. Your abs are designed to work as part of your torso to transfer force, create power, keep you stable and help you move efficiently by linking your top and bottom half together. Makes sense right? It’s in the middle of the body so is pretty central to all of the body’s movements. The stronger that centre point is, the more efficiently everything else will work.

“Your abs, believe it or not, were not designed to lure in the sexy members of the opposite sex when you flash them.”

The torso itself is made up of 6 key sets of muscles. The rectus abdominus, external obliques, internal obliques, transverse abdominus, quadratus lumborum and the spinal erectors. These muscles work in 4 primary ways:

  • Flexion and extension of the spine – front to back movements
  • Laterally flex the spine – side to side movements
  • Rotation of the spine – turning around
  • Stabilising the mid-section – keeping everything tight

A strong core has nothing to do with a 6-pack.

A 6-pack is simply the by-product of having a low body fat percentage, that’s all. The quest for a 6-pack has led it to become something of a Holy Grail for fitness enthusiasts, which leads them to this method of laying there doing crunch after crunch or a slightly tweaked variation.

Crunches will only work your abs and core through a very small, single plane movement. However, life and training will normally happen in 3 planes. As well as this, there are going to be very few times that your abs are going to be recruited through the small end of range movement that crunches utilise. Training your torso properly should include all 3 planes, more range and training both seated, lying AND standing since this is where the torso is needed most.

As a trainer I can’t help but watch other trainers when I’m in big commercial gyms. I sometimes get to overhear some of their nuggets of wisdom and watch in awe at some of the breathtaking stupidity that occurs. When it comes to core work there is a vast difference completely dependent on which trainer you choose. Some will preach that “you only need to deadlift and squat to get all the core you need brah”, while others that have gone to a core stabilisation seminar or read one too many articles online won’t let their client touch a weight until they have spent half an hour fully activating their clients transverse abdominus.

“As a trainer I can’t help but watch other trainers. Sometimes, I get to watch in awe at some of the breathtaking stupidity that occurs.”

Personally, I feel the answer lies somewhere between these two, and as with so many things is down to the individual’s needs. A guy with a bad back from sitting at his desk and on his couch too much (typical flexion intolerant back pain) will need a different set of exercises to the girl that’s just taken up CrossFit with a poor coach, isn’t using her core in her lifts properly, and has squashed her intervertebral disks, leading to extension-based back pain.

And both of these will differ from the guy that has been working out for a while and just wants to get fitter. Basically, this post could go on and on and on so here’s my general thoughts on how I strengthen both mine and my clients’ cores.

Letting the core do its job

You could lay on a mat doing transverse ab activation until you’re blue in the face, in reality, its better to get the core to do what it was designed to do, support your spine while you lift things or move through different planes. Increasing the load of the exercise or making a movement more difficult will increase the demands on the core and as long as technique isn’t compromised, it will strengthen. Your core is engaged to a higher degree when standing then sitting or lying, so be sure to incorporate loads of standing overhead pressing to really test that middle, just make sure to squeeze those glutes and contract the abs to keep that spine neutral and those ribs down.

As well as working the core in its natural habitat there are some useful ancillary training methods to help further develop that strong mid section. These exercises can be broken into 4 categories.

  • Anti-Flexion – Resisting a force trying to pull your spine into flexion.
  • Anti-Extension – Resisting a force trying to pull your spine into extension.
  • Anti-Lateral Flexion – Resisting a force trying to pull you into a side bend.
  • Anti-Rotation – Resisting a force trying to rotate your lumbar spine.

An example for each could include:

AF – Hip Hinges / Good Mornings

AE – Plank Hold / Dead Bugs

ASF – Suitcase Carry / Side Plank Hold

AR – Pallof Press / Single Arm High Plank

In Conclusion…

So there we go, a brief overview of the core and how to strengthen it. Get your overhead presses in your program and try to include at least one type of ancillary exercise each session and you’ll have a solid core made of oak, or steel, or i don’t know, some other really hard substance.

Or just stick to doing thousands of crunches with no real benefit. It’s up to you.

Image Credits
Never Bring a Gun to a Cannon Fight | Flickr – Photo Sharing! : taken from –
Author: Julian Fong

Gewichtheber | Flickr – Photo Sharing! : taken from –
Author: kosmolaut