How to Strengthen Your Core – 7 Best core strengthening exercises

Core strength is a much talked about topic, both in fitness circles, athletic arenas and for the general population. In other words, it’s important for everyone! Whether your goal is aesthetics, strength or simply health, learning how to strengthen your core with effective core strengthening exercises will help you.

A simple search over the internet can provide you with thousands of exercise plans and routines, which means it can be hard to find the most effective exercises. My hope with this post is to present you with what I have found to be the most effective core exercises and the reasons behind using them. You can then decide which ones may align with your goals.

Before I get into it, I want to let you know that I’m a big fan of keeping things simple. You won’t find any crazy, faddy exercises or shortcuts to a 6-pack here. After all, the goal of this article is not a 6-pack, it is a strong core – there’s a difference.

And that is the first little lesson: you are better off focusing your core training on strength and letting your diet do the work if you want a visible 6-pack.

The Difference Between Core and Abs training

Athlete training abs image

Leading on from the previous point I made, I wanted to clarify that there is a big difference between training your core and abs despite the terms being used interchangeably quite often. I used to run a “core class” at a gym I worked in and some people were disappointed that it wasn’t focused around blasting their stomach muscles for half an hour.

Training your abs will definitely perform part of a core training program but the abs are just one set of muscles that make up your entire core. Focusing heavily on just your abdominals leads to imbalances and to be honest, there are other core muscles that have a better carry over to athletic performance.

Endless crunches may work your abdominals but they do very little for strengthening your core as an entire unit.

Core training means that you focus on the entire set of muscles that make up your core and you train them to be strong together. Real strength and power comes when a large group of muscles work in unison with each other.

Reasons to Strengthen Your Core

Core strength has become a term that’s thrown around a lot nowadays. The reason is that people recognize just how important it is for daily life as well as performance.

 As the name suggests, your core is the center of all your movements and it supports you anytime you do anything other than lay down. These may be obvious to some of you but it is worth listing the benefits you can see from a good core strengthening routine. So, here they are:

Core Strengthening Benefits

  • Lower injury risk, especially in the lower back
  • Improved balance and coordination
  • Better posture
  • More protection for the spine
  • Enhanced neuromuscular efficiency
  • Ability to generate more power
  • Increased strength potential
  • And Yes! It will help to build your ab muscles and make gaining a 6-pack easier

What are the Core Muscles? 

Primarily, the muscles we talk about when mention the core are focused all the way around your trunk. However, as you will see, it actually extends slightly beyond that and I bet there are more “core muscles” than you realized.

Here is a list of the primary core muscle:

  • Rectus abdominis
  • Transverse abdominis
  • Internal and external obliques
  • Erector spinae
  • Multifidus
  • Gluteals
  • Adductors
  • Diaphragm
  • Pelvis floor muscles

On top of that, Your latissimus dorsi and trapezius could also be consider as part of the core since they play a part in stabilizing your back.

Core muscles diagram

On top of that, Your latissimus dorsi and trapezius could also be consider as part of the core since they play a part in stabilizing your back.

As you can see from the diagram, your core muscles are pretty much everything apart from your arms and legs.

Some of your core muscles also wrap around your body in different layers, which is why it’s important to train them differently. For example, your rectus abdominis (6-pack muscles) are on the outer layer and can be worked with crunching movements, whereas your transverse abdominis sits beneath them in a deeper layer and functions as more of a stabiliser so is better trained with isometric holds.

Measuring Core Strength

Measuring core is a concern for some people but it can be fairly had to measure effectively since a lot of the common tests only really measure your ability to perform that specific exercise.

In my opinion, a better way to judge your core strength is to analyse whether or not the training you are doing is having the expected carry over to your main goal. For example, has your vertical jump increased since starting a core program? Is your squat form better? Has your posture improved?

Of course, I understand that some people like to have numbers and a set of objective results to look at for motivation. So, I have included some core strength tests below that you can do yourself.

The tests could also be used to judge whether or not your core needs some extra attention. If you struggle with certain ones, it could be a sign of weakness in a specific area.

1. Plank for time

Get onto the prone position with elbows flexed up to 90 degrees and hold a standard plank for as long as you can with good posture. Record your time.

Plank abs exercise image

A time of below 60 seconds is a sign you need some work on your core. In particular your transverse abdominis and lower back muscles.

2. Side planks for time

Side planks is another variation on the plank test above. Assume and hold the side plank position and record your time for each side.

Side plank abs exercise image

Below 60 seconds points to a possible transverse abdominis or oblique weakness.

3. Sit up and Reverse crunch progression tests

These are two tests that are great for testing abdominal strength and control. There is already an excellent article with some great pictures so if you want to check out these test, click here to head over to this abs test article on T-nation.

Core Strength Training Plan Principles

Below, I have included an all-round core strengthening plan that features my favourite exercises for training your entire core. Feel free to pick the exercises that apply most to your particular sport or weaknesses.

It is important to note that this is not a core strengthening routine that is supposed to be done by itself, although you could if your only focus for training was core strength. In reality, it is a list of exercises that are excellent for core strength and should be plugged into your current training program.

You will find exercises that train each of the main functions for your core.

Functions of the core:

Flexion Bending forwards
Extension Bending backwards
Rotation Pivoting around the axis of your hips
Lateral flexionBending your waist from side to side
StabilizationMaintaining a neutral posture
Anti-flexion, rotation and extensionResisting against flexion, rotation or extension

A good core program will incorporate exercises that cover each of those functions. My preference is to use exercises that target more than one function at a time for example, the deadlift focuses on extension, anti-flexion and stabilization all at once.

The Best Core Strengthening Exercises 

Below is the list of my all-time favourite core strength exercises. There is no scheme for sets and reps since that will be largely determined by your individual training goals, recovery abilities and training phase, which could have separate articles all for themselves. Training frequency will also be dependent on a few different factors but I do have a post that covers that topic in more detail: How often should you train a muscle group?

Anyway, on to the exercises. In no particular order, here they are:

(click the exercise name to open a YouTube demo)

  1. Ab wheel rollouts

    What may look like a bit of a shopping channel gimmick is actually one of the most effective ab and core training tools around. These can be absolutely brutal but are awesome for training your core to stabilize your spine through movement.

  2. Pallof presses

    My very favourite exercise for training anti-rotation. It may look and feel a bit strange at first but you will soon start to feel your core muscles working hard. The key is to try and maintain good posture while keeping your trunk still during each rep.

  3. Hip Thrusts

    Extension and glute engagement is an often-overlooked area of core training, which is a big mistake because the muscles responsible for it are big, powerful and crucial for athletic performance. If you want to build a strong and powerful set of hips and glutes, hip thrusts are the way to go.

  4. Single arm carries

    Weighted carries are simply incredible for both conditioning and strength. Single arm carries get the benefits of traditional weighted carries with the added bonus of targeting anti-lateral flexion, which is one of the core’s functions that is easy to forget about.

  5. Standing cable crunches

    There is still a place for direct ab training in a program since it covers the flexion function of your core. I feel that standing flexion exercises are more likely to carry over to sports and daily life since you’re more likely to be using your abs from a standing position.

  6. Cable wood chops

    Wood chops are excellent for training rotation while integrating the rest of your body. Anybody that plays a sport which involves throwing, kicking or swinging a club, bat or racket will see some big benefits from these.

  7. Standing compound movements

    Not strictly a single exercise but very important nonetheless. Any exercise where you are using multiple joints and muscles to move a weight is going to demand a lot of core strength. Deadlifts, overhead presses and squats are some of the very best exercises in this category.
Add the above exercises into your training program, focus on getting stronger in each one over time and your core strength is sure to improve as a result. If you are sure to emphasize proper technique at all times and you are consistent, you will see the benefits and a transfer to your main training goals.
Laine Norton
 

I am a strength training enthusiast that loves discovering new ways to get stronger. As a certified trainer and powerlifting competitor, I’m always looking for different training methods and advice. I hope to pass some of what I learn on to my fellow lifters.

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