Having a strong core makes everything easier. It will keep you stable and strong for other exercises such as squats, weight lifting, and pushups, as well as supporting you in everyday life. But before I get into ways you can strengthen your core, let me explain exactly which muscles I’m talking about.
As you can see in the diagram above, your core doesn’t just include your abs (the infamous “six pack”). Instead, it is comprised of all the muscles in your center – from your abs, to your obliques, to your lower back and glutes. If you over train only one or two of those muscle groups, your body will be imbalanced and it could lead to back problems, as well as increasing your risk of injury. That’s why it is important to train your entire core.
One important way to do this is though compound movements, such as squats and pushups. These kinds of multi-joint exercises indirectly strengthen your core by requiring it to stay stable and strong to support the rest of your body. However, if you are really lacking in core strength, it would also be a good idea to incorporate at least 2-3 core specific workouts per week. Even just 10 minutes of core work will give you results.
So without further ado, here are some of the best exercises for developing a rock solid core – and don’t worry, my list doesn’t include any sit-ups or crunches 😉
Plank – In my opinion, this is the king of all core exercises, because it calls on literally every single muscle in your core. It also indirectly strengthens your shoulders, calves, and pretty much every muscle in your body, since they all have to work together to keep your body rigid. The key with this exercise is to keep a straight line from your ankles, through your hips, to your shoulders and neck. If your hips are too high or too low, it won’t be nearly as effective. The idea is to be as stiff as a board (or a plank I suppose).
Bridge – This one is kind of a plank for your glutes and lower back. It is also great for your hamstrings and quads, but it’s main benefit is to give your core some extra support from behind. Bridges are expecially beneficial for those with lower back problems, since it strengthens the muscles in that area.
Hollow Holds – There is a reason this exercise is so popular for gymnasts – it is a killer way to strengthen your abdominals. If your form is correct, you will be quivering like jello after just 30-60 seconds of holding yourself in the “hollow” position. But don’t worry, like any other exercise, it gets easier as you get stronger.
*Note:* If you are a beginner, try to hold each of the above positions for 15-30 seconds, for 3-5 sets. Eventually it should be no problem to hold them for a minute at a time. You’ve got this!
Jump Rope – Jumping rope is usually thought of as a cardio exercise, but it is actually also great for working your core (and your calves, feet, and ankles). Every time you jump up and down your body calls on all of your core muscles to hold you stable when you land. Make sure you land with a slight bend in your ankles and knees, but keep the rest of your body straight and your core engaged. Jumping around sloppily will get you nowhere.
Overhead Squats – This exercise is a lot harder than it looks. Holding a weight over your head while performing a squat seriously taxes your core as it works to support your upper and lower body. Grab a couple of dumbbells or a barbell (start with a low weight) and you’ll see what I mean! Make sure to maintain good squat form (weight back on your heels, chest up, back flat).
V-Ups – Another exercise that is popular with gymnasts, V-Ups are a fantastic alternative to crunches or sit-ups. Keeping your balance is tough for this one, so to make it easier you can start with your hands in front of you and your knees bent, but eventually it should look like this:
Russian Twists – This exercise will work your upper abdominals and your obliques. Once you have mastered good form, you can make it harder (because you’re serious about getting strong, right?!) by holding a dumbbell or kettlebell as you twist side to side. Try to keep your back flat, and keep your feet off the ground if you can.
Roll-Ups – If you have ever taken part in a pilates class, chances are you are already somewhat familiar with this exercise. It is a fabulous way to work your abdominals, as well as stretching and decompressing the spine – a must for preventing back problems. Remember to breathe!
Kettlebell Swings – KB Swings are an awesome, total body exercise. If you use enough weight, they can give you killer legs, arms, upper back, and of course, some serious core definition. Here is a video that explains in detail how to master this exercise. It is a lot of fun once you get the hang of it 🙂
Did you notice that several of the above exercises emphasize holding still, rather than creating big movements like most other exercises? The reason for that is because the function of your core is different from other parts of your body. Most of the time, your core’s main purpose is to hold your body stable while it moves, rather than the other way around. When you plan your workouts and incorporate compound and functional movements, don’t forget to also train your body to hold still under pressure.
And there you have it! Here’s to creating a solid core! Have fun adding some (or all, if you are really ambitious) of these exercises into your workout routine. Let me know how it goes in the comments below – I would love to hear your feedback 🙂