There are perhaps more exercises for the core than any other body part. But, sometimes more can be less. With so many movements to choose from, it's easy to miss exercises, or even entire categories of core training, that could exponentially increase your strength and definition.
Despite all the choices out there, the two most common components of core training these days seem to be the crunch and the plank. I'm not going to tell you that crunches and planks are useless or dangerous—both are great tools to have your arsenal—they're just not enough on their own!
In my experience, it's more helpful to think of core training in terms of attributes you're trying to build, rather than muscles. In particular, I recommend you have each of the following elements in your core training:
Here are my favorite movements in each of those categories, along with guidelines on how to program them. You can either include one from each category in your training at a time, or move through them in successive phases, but make sure you've got these essentials in the mix somewhere!
Static holds can be trained frequently because they require little equipment and are relatively accessible. Adding a hollow hold and arch hold into your static hold work, like the forearm plank, will target the traverse abdominis (basically the weight belt of the core), as well as the spinal erectors (the small muscles the run along the spine).
- Start on your back with your legs extended out in front and your arms overhead.
- Lift your legs up toward the ceiling as you pull your belly button and lower back flat on the floor. Lower your legs only as far as you can while keeping your lower back pinned down to the ground.
- Round your upper back and look at your toes. Hold this position for 20 seconds. Rest for 10 seconds. Repeat eight times.
- Prop yourself up on your forearms with your feet close together and your elbows directly underneath your shoulders.
- Press down firmly with your forearms as you squeeze your butt and inner thighs together.
- Pull your belly button up toward your spine, and try to drag your elbows back toward your hips. Hold for 45 seconds, then rest for 15 seconds. Repeat for 5 rounds.
- Lie on your belly with your arms extended out in front and your legs straight behind you.
- Keep your legs together and your biceps by your ears. Lift your chest and your legs off the ground.
- Squeeze your inner thighs and butt together as you send your tailbone toward your heels. Hold this position for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds. Repeat eight times.
When we think about core compression, the first thing that may come to mind is doing a few high-rep sets of crunches. But, when we talk about core strength in terms of building strength and athleticism, we need to work the core through its full range of motion. That means working the smaller muscles of the core, lower abdominals, and pelvic floor, along with the larger muscles of the hip flexors and quads, to create compression of the torso to the thighs.
- Lie on your back with your legs extended and arms overhead.
- Keep your belly hugging in toward your spine, then aggressively compress your thighs to your chest as you lift yourself onto your sit bones.
- Lie back down and repeat a total of 50 times in sets of 5 or 10 reps.
Pike Press with Sliders
- Begin at the top position of a push-up with your feet on sliders or a towel.
- Press firmly into the floor with your palms as you slide your feet, with your legs straight, as close to your palms as possible.
- Continue to pull your belly button toward your spine as you try to compress your thighs to your chest. Then, slide your feet back out to the top of a push-up. Repeat 20-25 times, or build up to that amount over time. These are tough!
Hanging Knee or Leg Raises
- Hang on a pull-up bar with your legs together and your core tight.
- Pull your shoulder blades down to engage your shoulders.
- Pull down on the bar as you lift your knees to your elbows, or your toes to the bar. Focus on compressing your thighs to your chest as you pull in your belly button. Aim for 5 sets of 5-7 reps.
Unlike static holds, increasing core endurance means teaching our core muscles to stabilize the spine during functional movements over a long period of time. This helps improve not only short lifting sets, but it also helps with form and positioning during longer, heavier workouts and all kinds of athletics.
If you don't have a sandbag, movements like farmer's carries, racked dumbbell or kettlebell carries, or medicine ball bear-hug walks or runs on a treadmill are great to train this skill, too.
Weighted Sandbag Run
- Grab a reasonably sized sandbag. You are running for a total of 1000 meters, so it's best to stay on the lighter side.
- Place the sandbag either over both shoulders, over just one, or in a bear-hug position. All are difficult, so feel free to alternate. Run 5 sets of 200 meters, and be prepared to be sore the next day!