Home Blog The 5 Best Indirect Core Stability Exercises for the Upper Body

The 5 Best Indirect Core Stability Exercises for the Upper Body

Written on November 15, 2013 at 9:24 am, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from Cressey Performance coach, Greg Robins.

These tips came about out of necessity in my own program, but can be tremendously useful to just about all gym goers. In the past, I placed most of my core work on lower body training days. Typically, I only have three days where I can really train hard, and only one of those days is upper body focused. That means I need to pack in a lot of volume into that one day.  Realizing that core stability was one of my major weaknesses, I tried to figure out a way to include more core stability exercises without adding time to my training schedule or losing out on volume elsewhere.

With that in mind, I started to do more indirect core work via my upper body accessory movements. In light of this revelation, here are my five favorite movements, why they’re worth a look, and how to perform them. I should note: I have intentionally included a balance of push and pull type movements.

1. Kettlebell Overhead Press Variations

Overhead pressing, when done correctly, presents a tremendous challenge to the anterior core, as we must brace to prevent excessive arching of the low back.

If we make the movement one sided, we add the additional challenge of not side bending. In other words, it becomes a rotary and lateral core challenge.

Additionally, I prefer to overhead press a kettlebell over a dumbbell. The shape of the KB, and the way it’s held, promote a much smoother groove in which to press.

Lastly, the KB press offers some very simple, yet challenging, variations. You can perform them half kneeling (one knee down), tall kneeling (both knees down), or simply hold the KB upside down (bottoms-up) for an added stability challenge.

Check out this video on how to perform the tall kneeling KB press, one my favorite variations. The points discussed in the video carry over to each of the other variations mentioned.

2. Band Resisted Ab-Wheel Rollouts or Barbell Rollouts

Here’s one that probably caught most of you by surprise. In many people’s eyes, the ab wheel rollout is a direct core stability exercise. In many cases, I would agree with you. When a person first begins to learn this movement, without the band, it is far more challenging to hold the proper spinal position than it is to roll back to the start.

Furthermore, the demand on your upper body to roll back isn’t that high when the wheel is unloaded.

Once someone has become proficient at the unloaded wheel, you can actually load this movement. Adding bands to the wheel, or using a loaded barbell, creates quite a bit more work for the upper body, and in turn the core, which is trying to resist unwanted movement.

These two variations will help you not only build a strong midsection, but also add volume targeting the lats and long head of the triceps as well.

3. Split Stance Overhead Triceps Extension

This one is a killer, and I love it. It gets thrown out the window completely by most people, as if it’s just another triceps extension that’s just a waste of time. The truth is, it as a brutal exercise in anti-extension when done correctly.

With the lever arm being so far away from the lower back, even a small amount of weight can create a serious challenge in keeping the core braced and the ribs down. Not to mention, the movement also goes along way to develop the triceps. Lastly, the need to control the load more, and stay strict with the form, usually leaves people’s elbows feeling a lot better than other extension exercises.

4. 3-Point Dumbbell Row

Anyone who has ever done a 3-point dumbbell row – somewhat strictly and with enough weight – knows that is a brutal test in anti-rotation. If you think about exercises like the renegade row, or even a 1-arm push up, the 3-point row offers much of the same benefits.

If you need to be more efficient with your training, and add some additional core training into the mix, I would choose this row over the traditional 1-arm DB row every time.

5. Half-Kneeling Push/Pull

This one requires some set-up, but it’s worth the hassle. The half-kneeling push-pull is the ultimate challenge in moving your upper extremities around a stable mid-section. Unlike many off-loaded push or pull exercises, you do not get the opportunity to brace one side of the body and focus your attention mainly on the moving side. Instead, both sides are actively going through concentric and eccentric motions while you brace the midsection and engage the glutes to keep the pelvis under control. Check out this video, and give it a try:

That wraps it up! These exercises are great additions to the bottom half of your programming on an upper body day and work extremely well in a more full body type programming effort as well. Enjoy!

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13 Responses to “The 5 Best Indirect Core Stability Exercises for the Upper Body”

  1. Shane"Aussie" McLean Says:

    Love combining core work into upper body workout. The half kneeling push pull is genius, Greg. What set/rep scheme do you suggest?

  2. Stefan Says:

    Great tips

  3. ted Says:

    Are these all OK to do for overhead throwing athletes?

  4. Roy Reichle Says:

    I use all of these with my clients, depending on their abilities, and have had great success. Many of them regularly comment on how much their core works without ever having do do crunches, sit-ups, and such. On my own workouts, I use so much indirect core that when I do abs it’s just to polish them off.

  5. Teri Chadwick Says:

    Excellent. Excellent excellent excellent!!! I love Greg’s stuff. His coaching tips and protocols are always spot on.

  6. Joel Ledford Says:

    Great stuff! I’ve been reading all your articles for over 2 years now and it has helped me put a lot of muscle on. I can now deadlift over 500 for 2+ reps!

  7. Eric Cressey Says:


    I’d probably leave out #1 and #3.

  8. Eric Cressey Says:

    Thanks, Joel!

  9. Dar Forsythe Says:

    Great video.


  10. Brian Hannah Says:

    Eric/Greg in #2, Greg keeps the knees flexed when rolling in/out. I usually do this with the toes on the ground (no good reason). Is there a reason to do it with the knees bent? I love the idea of resisting this exercise!

    Also, in #3 Overhead triceps extension, you have the cable set fairly high which would offer a different force application vs. the cable being set near the upper back or head, perpendicular to the forearm and trunk as opposed to a more vertical pull. I’d be interested to hear why you use the former. I’ll try that and see. Looks cool.

    Another great post. Thank you guys so much for taking the time to do these posts. I think I can speak for the readers when I say we really appreciate you sharing your tips and tricks!


  11. Shane Smith Says:

    Could i replace some of the exercises from neanderthal no more part IV with these? Also eric do you recommend handstands and pull-ups along with the above named workout plan?

  12. Steve Lantner Says:

    Greg and Eric,
    Thank you again for another great posting. Eerily relevant to my current thinking.
    Do you ever experiment with combining resistance on frontal and sagittal planes, for example using a resistance band attached over head while doing a one-arm cable row? I’m trying to recreate the motion of using a hand saw on a tree limb.

  13. Dawn Says:

    Thank you so much for these videos! I love them!

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