Home Blog Q&A: Can You Overtrain on Core Stability Exercises?

Q&A: Can You Overtrain on Core Stability Exercises?

Written on April 21, 2012 at 8:31 am, by Eric Cressey

Q: What are your thoughts on the right amount of volume, intensity and frequency on core exercises ranging from bridging variations to ab wheel rollouts from the feet for the intermediate to advanced lifter looking to decrease back pain and get out of anterior pelvic tilt? Is it possible to make progress for a while, but overdue it on volume, intensity or frequency and actually have your core get weaker or stop progressing/responding, and start to experience back pain and anterior pelvic tilt again?

A: This is an outstanding question, and I can really go in a number of different directions with it.

First, let me say that the single best way to get out of excessive anterior tilt is training oneself to not live in anterior tilt!  No amount of exercise will undo the damage you can do with your daily posture.  That’s the easy part of this response, though.

Next, I’ll say that I absolutely believe that we can overdo it with “core-specific” exercises.

As a parallel, just consider the shoulder.  The glenohumeral (ball and socket) joint is heavily reliant on both active (muscles/tendons) and passive (capsule/ligaments and labrum) restraints for stability. If you overdo it with rotator cuff exercises and train the cuff to excessive fatigue, individuals lose dynamic stability and can’t maintain the position of the humeral head in the glenoid fossa. Overuse conditions and injuries can occur.  I wrote about this in an old series, How Much Rotator Cuff Work is Too Much? - Part 1 and Part 2.

Similarly, the lumbar spine relies heavily on both active and passive restraints.  People can overcome lumbar ligament and disc injuries to live pain-free if they maintain adequate soft tissue control.  Likewise, many sedentary folks can live pain-free in spite of poor soft tissue function simply because the challenges of their daily activities don’t exceed the tolerance of the passive restraints (these are the folks who often blow out their backs trying move couches).

That said, we have to be careful about overreacting to this realization.  Just as the trend of doing thousands of sit-ups in the past few decades created a ton of back pain, you see a lot of completely deconditioned individuals who are hurting, too.  There has to be a middle ground between the two.  So, you could say:

Optimizing core function is really a delicate balance of exercise selection, volume, frequency, and intensity.

Unfortunately, I don’t know that we have a perfect (or even close to perfect) answer with respect to all of these factors, as everyone is different.  Consider the following:

1. Flexion-intolerant backs must be treated differently than extension-intolerant backs.

2. Trained athletes probably need a lower frequency because of their sport participation and neural efficiency, but can handle a greater intensity and more complex exercises – and need to prepare the core for fatigue over an extended period (e.g., soccer game, tennis match, 100-pitch outing).

3. A sedentary individual probably needs a greater frequency of low-intensity exercises.

4. In-season athletes must be careful not to do too much work and pre-fatigue the core before competition.

5. Those with congenital laxity (loose joints) likely need a greater frequency of core work for “neuromuscular reminding.”

6. The general exercises we can do in a weight room or rehab setting must be complemented by sport-specific activities in the appropriate volume.  When general volume goes down, specific can go up – and vice versa.

7. Athletes with a previous history of injury – or known diagnostic imaging red flags – may need to do more just to maintain.

8. Everyone’s definitions of “core” is different.  I view the core as pretty much everything between the knees and the shoulders – but the truth is that poor core control can also lead to elbow and foot/ankle issues; should we include those joints as part of the equation?

9. Everyone’s definition of and “core stability exercises” is also different.  Rollouts – an anterior core stability exercise – were mentioned in the question above, but I’ve never had more soreness in my anterior core than after doing heavy push presses.  Simply holding a weight overhead forces our anterior core to work to prevent lumbar hyperextension (the photo below shows what happens when the anterior core isn't properly engaged).

As you can see, the “how much is too much” question is a big, fat, hairy one.  Ask 100 fitness professionals and rehabilitation specialists, and they’ll all have different answers – and even then, it will still be dependent on the athlete/client/patient.  We can’t even effectively define “core,” let alone “core stability exercises” to answer today’s question.

Taking it a step further, only 15% of low back pain has a definitive diagnosis.  One could make the argument, therefore, that only 15% of core function can be adequately assessed/interpreted.  We’d like to think that we know exactly what is going on with a spine, but it’s just not reflected in the research.

The good news, though, is that while most people encounter low back pain at some point in their lives, the overwhelming majority of them do get better with rehabilitation.  We just don’t know what’s optimal - and I’m not sure we ever will, but we are getting a lot better, thanks to the availability of both research and anecdotal experience of rehabilitation specialists, fitness professionals, and folks who have stayed healthy.

This is one reason why I’m so proud of the Functional Stability Training series from Mike Reinold and me. The two of us collaborated in the past to bridge the gap between rehabilitation and performance training, and we have done it again with project.


Whether you’re a fitness or rehabilitation professional, or exercise enthusiast or athlete looking to learn more about how to effectively prepare the core, train around various lumbo-pelvic injuries/conditions, or learn about developing power in the frontal and transverse planes with medicine ball drills, there is much to be gained from watching Functional Stability Training.

To sweeten the deal, the entire series is on sale for 20% off through the end of the weekend. You can check it out HERE.

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11 Responses to “Q&A: Can You Overtrain on Core Stability Exercises?”

  1. mike Says:

    I have been looking at various fitness programs and wanted to know if I am just getting back to fitness routine after a month away from it, do you prefer your show and go program or your core stability program, how do they differ? Do you prefer one over the other? Keep in mind, my goal is take off more weight and try my first triathlon by the end of the summer-sprint triathlon.

  2. Leon Says:

    That was a good read. It will leave me pondering the variables for the evening. Good job.

  3. Kristen Says:

    What do you think of the notion some people have: they do not want to even utter the word “core”?

  4. Andreas Says:

    Good answer (“it depends”) to a complicated question.
    From my experience I can say that noone I know has ever overdone core stability exercises.
    Some time ago I was a mixture of Eric’s points 4,5 and 7:
    4. In-season athlete
    5. with congenital laxity
    7. with a previous history of injury
    I was working on the core every day and I felt my back getting worse whenever I got lazy and skipped the exercises for a few days.
    Can you be too stable? I don’t think so.

  5. Charlie Says:

    Hi Eric, I’ve had posterior pelvic tilt for years without even realizing it. Now that I’m aware I’m still trying to learn the feeling of neutral pelvic position. How do I identify the correct posture?
    Also, I’ve never experienced lower back pain (I’m 44). I do have a load of upper back, neck and shoulder pain. Any suggestions? Thanks!

  6. Michael Tankovich SPT,ATC,CSCS Says:

    I am concerned after reading this article. I think there are quite a few errors in regards to what is currently known about pain.

    Is anterior pelvic tilt a cause of pain? This has not been shown, and a review article by Eyal Lederman has discussed the lack of evidence between the postural–structural–biomechanical model and low back pain. This article is open access if you google the title http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21419349.

    Additionally, while the evidence shows moderately positive effects for exercises in those with low back pain a recent systematic review concluded, “The findings do not support the notion that the treatment effects of exercise therapy in cLBP are directly attributable to changes in the musculoskeletal system.”
    Steiger, F., Wirth, B., de Bruin, E. D., & Mannion, A. F. (2011). Is a positive clinical outcome after exercise therapy for chronic non-specific low back pain contingent upon a corresponding improvement in the targeted aspect(s) of performance? A systematic review. European Spine Journal: Official Publication of the European Spine Society, the European Spinal Deformity Society, and the European Section of the Cervical Spine Research Society. doi:10.1007/s00586-011-2045-6

    I’m not suggesting that trunk exercises are not important or beneficial, however, saying that having “adequate soft tissue control” will cure your low back pain is unfounded. The perception of pain is far more complicated than this and thinking that an anterior pelvic tilt is “causing” your pain adds to the threat value and may even increase your pain.

    This is a good article that reviews modern pain science and how it relates to musculoskeletal pain. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/maney/ptr/2007/00000012/00000003/art00002

    Additionally, Moseley has presented a great TED talk about pain. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwd-wLdIHjs

    With all we have learned about pain over the last 30 years it’s time critically examine the postural–structural–biomechanical model and find more biologically plausible treatments. “Pain is not an actuate reflection of the state of the tissues.” GL Moseley


  7. Eric Cressey Says:


    That’s their choice – but I don’t know of a single lifter that’s been healthy for an entire training career. With that being said, it’s impossible to say for sure “I don’t need this.”

  8. Eric Cressey Says:

    Hi Mike,

    I’d go Show and Go, as it is an actual program you can follow.

  9. Mike Says:

    I’d say that one of the more common ways to over train the core would if you create an imbalance : too much anterior work for example. Getting a good balance in core training is not easy but it’s also hard to get it so wrong that it causes problems.

  10. Brian Looney, DPT, DC, CSCS Says:


    I can’t speak for Eric but I suggest you graduate from school and get in the trenches and at the time you will figure out what get’s people better. This will likely take you several years.


  11. Monica Franke Says:

    Thanks Eric; once again, a brilliantly put together piece about some under-considered questions.
    I think one of the things that many people overlook about ‘core’ is that it’s not just about the muscles in the belly and the butt, but also the outer slings, the muscle chains that act in concert to compress the sacrum and transfer force.
    In this, the importance of balanced stability and mobility/ compression and propulsion is key. Sport specifics, power, endurance and speed can built on this.
    The neural efficiency is also a great one to think about for returning-to-fitness clients, those with injuries and post-partum women.

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