Pillar Strength Training

Pillar training
(Image credit: Unknown)

Pillar strength is at the foundation of every movement you make, but it's something that most people have never heard of.
"Pillar strength is all about the stability of your shoulders, core and hips, because these are central to all movement," explains personal trainer Shaun Stafford. "These three areas give us a central axis from which we can move our limbs and body in any direction.

"Having a perfectly aligned base allows us to efficiently transfer energy throughout the body – from limbs through torso, or from torso to limbs – making movements more powerful and effective. If you're not aligned properly then you won't have a stable base from which to move, making everything from running to weightlifting harder.
"Many gym rats have poor alignment because they focus on certain muscle groups at the expense of others," says Stafford. "Also, sitting at a desk all day can lead to poor posture, which further weakens pillar strength."

"Pillar strength training is designed 're-tune' the body to function more efficiently, while reducing the risks of injury," Stafford says. "It's all about being functional, so it should involve getting back to basics and training your body the way it was designed to move and generate force."
Improve your pillar strength with the strength training progressions below – they'll fit nicely into any total-body sessions you're planning to do. If you're new to training, start with the beginner exercises and do them for at least two weeks before moving onto the next level. These core exercises and shoulder exercises should help too.


Lateral raise

Isolate your middle shoulders with this single-joint move, which should be done with a light weight.

  • Stand with your body upright, core braced and feet apart, looking forward. 
  • Hold light dumbbells by your sides, palms facing in. 
  • Lift the weights out to the sides with straight arms. 
  • Stop at shoulder level and hold for a moment before lowering slowly. Don't swing your body for momentum.


Build a strong link between your upper and lower body with this classic stability move that makes your core work hard.

  • Hold your body in a straight line from head to heels with your feet together and elbows beneath shoulders. 
  • Keep looking down at the floor. 
  • Hold the position for as long as you can without letting your hips sag.

Barbell hack squat

Placing the weight behind and below you emphasises the load placed on the glutes for better results in less time.

  • Brace your core, then lower into a squat, keeping your back straight.
  • You won’t be able to drop as low as normal. Stop before your thighs are level with the floor and drive back up.


One-arm dumbbell snatch 

This move targets the shoulders. You should work each side of your body independently. This is especially useful for sports conditioning.

  • Hold one dumbbell between your legs, keeping your shoulders square. 
  • Lift the weight powerfully in front of you. 
  • Squat beneath the weight to catch it. 
  • Stand up straight.


This move eccentrically contracts your glutes in the crouch before powerfully contracting them as you thrust back. The two-phase explosive movement of squat thrust and two-footed jump hits the glutes twice.

  • Start in a press-up position, keeping your body in a straight line. 
  • Bring your feet back under you then explode upwards, driving though your feet with your glutes and legs. 
  • Reach up with your arms to gain extra height.

Lateral lunge

All too often ignored, your hips and inner thighs are vital in turning movements during sport.

  • Stand with your feet close together and torso upright, looking forward. 
  • Hold dumbbells by your sides. 
  • Take a big step to the side, keeping your head up and torso upright. 
  • Lower on your leading leg, keeping your knee in line with your foot. 
  • Your feet should be pointing forward throughout.


Clean and press

This full-body, major-muscle movement will work not just your shoulders but your entire chain, leading to serious strength gains throughout your central pillar and your limbs.

  • Grip the bar just wider than shoulder-width apart. 
  • Bend forward at the hips so you're holding the bar just above your knees. 
  • Keep your back neutral and look forward. 
  • Lift the bar onto your shoulders, by driving your hips foward and shoulders up at the same rate. 
  • Drop down into a deep squat, centring your weight under the barbell. 
  • Drive up from your legs through your core to get into the standing position. 
  • Transfer the power from your core to your upper body as you continue to press the bar up. 
  • At the top of the move, your arms should be straight and the barbell centred above you.

Kettlebell swing

Kettlebell swings put a lot of emphasis on your core, which has to stabilise your body as you pull the weight upwards. 

  • Drop into a half-squat and swing the bell between your legs.   
  • Then swing it all the way up, standing as you do so and keeping your back straight. The bell should come up to about shoulder height.   
  • It's working when you are using your legs and driving through your hips, and you're in full control of the kettlebell.

Smith squat

Target your hips with this move. The Smith machine allows you to press more weight without worrying about controlling the bar. 

  • Rest the bar on the back of your shoulders, not your neck. 
  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes turned out slightly and elbows back to retract your shoulder blades. 
  • Place your feet slightly in front of your body to put more emphasis on your quads.
  • Brace your core muscles and unlock the bar from the rack, looking forward throughout. 
  • Lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor. 
  • Maintain a natural arch in your back.

Nick Hutchings worked for Men’s Fitness UK, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Nick worked as digital editor from 2008 to 2011, head of content until 2014, and finally editor-in-chief until 2015.