Core strength is important: We use it when we carry a bag of groceries, get up from the floor, push open a door, or punch a punching bag. But too often, we think of “core” training as something done specifically with crunches or planks. And that’s a shame, because our cores do so much more.
If you do nothing but crunches — thinking you’re going to get a six-pack — you’re being just as short-sighted as somebody who never does any core work because it’s boring or they “forget.” So if you’d like to build a stronger midsection, try thinking about it a little differently.
Treat your core like any other muscle
When we train our arms, we get stronger and progress to heavier dumbbells. When we train our legs, we end up squatting more weight over time. So why would we train our core any differently? You wouldn’t do 100 curls with a 2 kg weight when the 10-kg is right there, so why would you do 100 crunches instead of finding a more challenging exercise? I mean, if you love doing crunches by the hundreds, I won’t stop you. But you have way more options.
Another thing we can learn from other types of strength training is that your core work doesn’t have to be an everyday thing. If you try a more challenging core move and find yourself sore afterward, you may be thinking “How can I do this every day? It’s too hard.” But there’s no reason you have to do it every day. It’s ok to do dedicated core work two or three times a week, resting in between.
But the core isn’t just one muscle
Crunches work the muscles at the front of our torso, mainly the rectus abdominis, better known as the six-pack muscle. But our core includes a lot more than that, including two layers of obliques (muscles with diagonal fibres that help us twist from side to side, or resist a twisting movement) and a bunch of back muscles. The erector spinae muscle group is one of these, and some trainers include the hips and glutes when they’re thinking about the core. Upper back and chest muscles may also be included, like the latissimus dorsi, or lats.
To hit all of these muscles, we’ll need to do different movements. It’s true that planks work pretty much everything in the body, so that’s a good place to star, but there are so many more options — not ot mention that variety helps not just to alleviate boredom, but also gives each muscle a chance to work hard without being limited by the strength of its neighbours.
Include these three types of core exercises
So what are all those different muscles, and how can you make sure you’re hitting them all? I recommend thinking of your core muscles in three groups, and choosing one or two exercises to target each.
Anti-extension, for the front of your core
The muscles in the front of your body (sometimes called your “anterior chain”) make up the first category. Traditional crunches or situps work these muscles, which include the rectus abdominis on the front of your belly, and the hip flexors, which connect your core to your thighs.
To work these muscles, you can do flexion exercises, where you’re moving your body such that it curls up. Or you can think of these exercises as “anti-extension,” meaning you are resisting a force that wants to pull your body in the opposite direction. Either way, the muscles at the front of your core need to work. Here are some examples:
- Plank saws, stir the pot, or other variations where you try to hold a plank while moving your feet, arms, or both
- Ab rollouts
- Situps, crunches, and curl-ups (which are all subtle variations on the same movement)
- Leg raises, hanging or otherwise
For the easiest starting point, you can do deadbugs by sliding one leg along the floor, instead of holding an opposite arm and leg off the ground. And to make these exercises harder, try ab rollouts from your knees or from standing. Hanging leg raises are also challenging, especially with straight legs, and you can make them even harder with ankle weights or a dumbbell held between your feet.
Extension (or anti-flexion), for your back
Now that we’ve worked the core muscles at the front, let’s look at the opposite muscle group: the posterior chain, which includes muscles at the back of the body. If you’re doing hinge exercises like deadlifts, kettlebell swings, or good mornings, you’re already working the hamstrings, glutes, and back. Here are some examples that will build on that, focusing on the back muscles specifically:
- Bird dogs
- Reverse hyperextensions (where your torso is fixed and you’re moving your legs)
- Hyperextensions (where your legs are fixed and you’re moving your torso)
- Glute bridges
For the easiest variation, start with bird dogs where you move one arm or leg at a time, bringing it an inch off the floor. For harder variations, try a reverse hyperextension machine where you can load weights at ankle level, or do hyperextensions while hugging a weight plate to your chest.
Anti-rotation, for your obliques and more
Your core muscles don’t just bend your body forward and backward; they also stabilise it (or move it) in the side-to-side direction. Your obliques are among the muscles involved here.
While there are exercises where you can rotate your torso (think of a woodchopper done with a cable machine, or a baseball player swinging a bat), most of the gym exercises that target these muscles are anti-rotation. In other words, you’re trying to hold still while gravity or a machine is trying to pull you over. These exercises include:
- Side planks
- Copenhagen planks and all their variations
- Pallof presses, done with a resistance band or a cable machine
- Suitcase carries and other asymmetrically loaded carries
The easiest entry point here is probably a pallof press done with very light resistance, and then you can work up to heavier and heavier weights (thicker resistance bands, or more weight on the cable machine stack). With suitcase carries, you can start with a light dumbbell and work up to heavier objects. I’ve even seen this done as an isometric hold: you have a barbell on the safeties in a rack and simply pick it up with one hand, holding it for time.
How to put together your core workout
Pick one exercise from each category (two if you like), and do each one for 30 to 60 seconds if it’s an isometric that you hold for time, or for a set of eight to 12 reps. The numbers don’t have to be exact, but aim for something in that range.
One way to structure your workout is to set a timer that will beep every minute for nine minutes. Do each exercise for one minute, resting during that minute if you need to, and then move on to the next one. This will give you three sets of each, and take less than 10 minutes of your time.
Every few weeks, revisit your choice of exercises. If something is getting too easy, replace it with a harder version. And if you’re getting bored with an exercise, try a different one. Here are a few examples.
A beginner-friendly core workout routine
First, a total beginner routine for somebody without much core strength to start with, and that can be done at home:
- Deadbugs where you slide one foot only as far as you can maintain with control (arms don’t move)
- Bird dogs where you move one arm or leg at a time, again just a small motion
- Suitcase carry, or even hold in place, with a light dumbbell or grocery bag
An advanced core workout routine
On the other end of the spectrum, something for a beast with gym access:
- Standing ab rollouts
- Reverse hypers, weighted of course
- Pallof press with the whole dang weight stack
An intermediate core workout routine
And one for those of us somewhere in the middle:
- Stir the pot
- Unweighted hyperextensions
- Suitcase carry with a 16 kg kettlebell
If you’d like to do more, you can! And don’t discount the core work you may be getting from other exercises in your routine, like carries, squats, and deadlifts. This approach will make core training a lot less boring and more effective.
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