We get it: You care about sculpting a six-pack. It’s the crowning achievement of any fit person, and probably requires the toughest combination of diet and exercise.
But just because your abs are part of your core doesn’t mean that training your abs takes care of everything. Proper core training improves foundational strength that carries over to every other exercise, decreases low back pain, fortifies you against injury, and aids in functional movements.
The easiest way to think about what exactly constitutes the core is to place a finger at the top of your abdomen near your sternum, and another at the bottom of your glutes. Include all the muscles between those two points, deep and superficial, and you have your core muscles. (Yeah: It’s more than your six-pack.)
Here are five ways you can better construct a solid core, in the truest sense of the word.
1. Do Get-Ups
The most common core training mistake: too many crunches and sit-ups. People like to feel that abdominal burn, thinking the fat will disappear from their bellies and that their core will become strong. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Crunches and sit-ups just can’t reach those “deep” core muscles—in this case, the transverse abdominis—that need to be strengthened. One great alternative to sit-ups and crunches is the Turkish get-up, a perfect blend of mobility, stability, functional movement, proprioception, and core strength. The abundance of moving parts in this exercise provides a great stimulus for the core, as well as other strength and movement benefits. If you want to feel your abs burn, do some get-ups with a weight heavy enough to activate the deep muscles of your core.
2. Add Rollouts
Do you remember those good old abdominal exercise wheels that you always saw in people’s basements next to all of their workout gear? Pick up one of those on the cheap—as it turns out, they’re amazing core builders.
Never tried one before? Go ahead and give it a spin—you’ll probably either fail before full extension, or experience some low back pain. That’s because that type of movement really hits those deep abdominals muscles of the anterior core. You want to avoid extension in the back, and need to engage your anterior core in order to do so.
Can’t quite complete a full-ROM rep with the wheel? Try a stability ball instead. This version is easier because of the inherently shorter range of motion, which is better on the back. Other variations include the Ab Dolly, dumbbells, barbells, or even a slide board.
3. Stabilize Your Lumbar
Lumbar pain is a common complaint for hard-training athletes—but it doesn’t have to be. You can fortify yourself against this kind of pain, among other methods, by increasing lumbar stability. In order to do this, you need to fire some deep core stabilizers by not moving your hips when in certain positions.
Two good approaches:
1) Avoiding too much rotation of the lower back area
2) doing various types of plank exercises. Loaded carries and planks prevent rotation and increase strength of the muscles that stabilize the lumbar spine. The farmer’s carry, suitcase carry, planks and side planks are all great options.
4. Include Anti-Rotation
The core muscles are stabilizers first. That’s why bridges and planks are so crucial for core strength. But if you look at the anatomy of the core muscles and what they do, about 70 percent or so involve rotating but without rotating the lower back (technically known as the lumbar spine).
Bottom line: You should include anti-rotation exercises where you rotate from the waist up, but not at the lumbar spine. The core musculature is then forced to stabilize against an aggressive or fast rotational force or collision, whether it is in sport or in life. Exercises such as half-kneeling cable pressouts and goblet squats with pressouts are both great choices.
5. Focus On Compound Movements
Some of the people with the strongest core muscles don’t even do any dedicated core work. That’s because they’re focusing on multi-joint “compound” lifts (working more than one muscle group at a time) instead of single joint “isolation” lifts (one muscle group at a time, such as biceps curl). When it comes to multi-joint moves, you have plenty to choose from: deadlifts, squat variations, lunges, kettlebell exercises, rows, medicine ball throws, Olympic lifts and power lifts all stimulate a lot of muscle at one time. The core has no choice but to work hard to stabilize the spine as you perform these types of exercises.
That’s why so many athletes frown on workout machines, even those that let you work multiple muscle groups at once—the fixed range of motion demands less from your core musculature. So instead of doing so many triceps pushdowns, machine moves, stick to the basics.