The rumors are true: developing the rectus abdominis muscle (the technical name for the six-pack) can play a part in effective core training. But having washboard abs isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to core training – at least not from a function and performance standpoint.
In fact, whether you have a six-pack or not is mostly determined by your body fat percentage (ie. your diet) and genetics, not some secret core exercises you just haven't discovered yet. That said, core training is still important – and likely more important than you think – for optimal performance, spine and back health, and longevity.
Core strength and stability can mean different things at different times. It encompasses many different planes of movement and many different muscles, all working together to either resist unwanted movement through our trunk when dealing with an external force, to provide a transfer of force between lower body and upper body, or a stable anchor point from which to move our arms and legs in athletic endeavors.
Here are 10 exercises to include in a well-rounded core training program.
It’s not an exhaustive list by any means, but it should cover all the bases.
1. Neutral, brace, breathe
Whilst not a ‘core exercise’ in the traditional sense, this is a good place to start as it sets the stage for every core stability exercise to follow. When we’re talking about core stability, we are referring to the body’s ability to prevent unwanted movement through our core, whereas you can think of strength as producing a movement (like a crunch).
Generally speaking, training core stability has more benefits and practical carryover to functional movement and spine/back health. Before we do any core training, it is helpful to learn these three things:
To learn what a neutral spine feels like – most people need to learn to keep the head, ribcage and pelvis aligned. ‘Locking down the ribs’ is a common coaching cue – puffing the chest up can actually misalign your body out of optimal positioning for core stability and optimal breathing.
To learn to brace, just imagine someone is about to punch you in the stomach, you should intuitively ‘tense up’ your midsection. How hard you brace, or your effort, should correspond with the difficulty of the task at hand.
To learn to breathe properly, we first need to be in neutral spine, so our diaphragm is in a good position. Whilst deserving of its own article (or book!) in itself, it’s important to learn how to ‘belly breathe’ and use our diaphragm. (which is a big contributor to core stability). Breathe out, into the belly region all the way around, not up into the chest and shoulders.
Before performing any of the core stability exercises below, first learn to integrate neutral spine, bracing and breathing, so you can do these three things at the same time, from varying positions.
The dead bug is a great entry-level core exercise, in the category of what’s called ‘anti-extension’. This exercise strengthens all the muscles that resist unwanted extension or ‘arching’ through the lower back. The main focus is to flatten your lower back to the floor (using your abdominal muscles) so there’s no gap, and then maintaining this position as you extend your opposite arm and leg towards the floor. This is a great exercise for teaching people how to move their limbs around a stable center.
Most people would have done this one, and though it's simple, it’s still a great core exercise for beginners. Set up by supporting yourself on your forearms and toes and maintaining a level, neutral spine for the duration of the hold, resisting sagging through the hips and lower back. A progression on this is to make it an ‘active’ plank by creating some extra tension by pulling your elbows down in the direction of your toes, straightening your legs as hard as you can, and squeezing your glutes.
This is a progression to a regular floor plank, and a fantastic core stability exercise with a lot of functional carryover. By placing the forearms on a Swiss ball, we’re adding a more unstable environment to the equation, which allows us to constantly change our base of support to train ‘reactive strength’. You can roll the ball forward and back for reps or time, ‘write’ the letters in your name or the alphabet by moving the ball with your elbows, or ‘stir the pot’ both clockwise and anti-clockwise.
A great exercise to learn stability and control of the core, and again, learning how to move the arms and legs around a stable center. Get on all fours, and think about making a coffee table, four legs evenly spread and weighted, with a neutral or flat back upon which you could balance a cup of coffee (note: don’t actually try this). From this position, you extend the opposite arm and leg, with minimal movement through the torso. Focus on preventing arching the lower back, shrugging the shoulders and teetering side to side.
A bear crawl is basically a moving bird dog, only more challenging as you have both knees off the floor and therefore have to work a lot harder to support and stabilize yourself, especially during motion. The bear crawl is great for training and maintaining reactive core strength as your body has to constantly adjust to the changing positions and base of support to maintain a neutral spine. The cross-patterning movement of the opposite shoulder and hip required to crawl (and walk, and run) is neurologically beneficial and keeps our body ‘tied’ together.
A side plank is in the category of an ‘anti-lateral flexion’ exercise, meaning you are resisting a force (gravity) trying to bend (or flex) your trunk sideways. The side plank predominantly works your internal/external obliques, and quadratus lumborom, important stabilizers of the spine. On top of this is it will strengthen the glute medius, an important stabilizer of the hip (and therefore your core) while also providing some nice shoulder stability on the supporting arm.
8. Anti-Rotation hold
As the name suggests, the primary objective of this exercise is to strengthen the ability to resist rotational force. Simply hold on to a cable or resistance band, standing sideways or perpendicular to the line of pull, and extend the arms out in front to increase the torque or resistance. You could hold this for 20-30 seconds each side, or complete sets of 5-10 reps pressing out and in, with a slightly heavier load.
9. Slow bicycle crunch
Good for training strength and endurance and a good alternative for those who love to ‘feel the burn’ of a sit-up or crunch type exercise – without wearing away at the discs in your lower back. Set up by lying on your back with feet up, hands on the side of your head (not behind, so you don’t get tempted to yank on your neck), and while your legs do a bicycle peddling movement, you bring your opposite elbow to your opposite knee in a ‘rotational crunch’ type of movement. You’ll feel these predominantly in the rectus abdominis (your six-pack), and the obliques, with some good cross patterning action for our brains to go with it, as we get that opposite shoulder and hip movement working in sync.
10. Hollow body hold and hang
The hollow body hold is a back-friendly way to strengthen the anterior (front) of the core. Start out by lying flat on your back, then gently lift your legs off the floor while elevating your upper back and shoulders off the floor, ‘hollowing’ your body out. Hold for about 20-30 seconds.
The hollow body hang is similar to the hollow body hold except you’re hanging from a bar, with gravity working against your legs and core in a slightly different way. The act of hanging from a bar with the shoulders overhead, whilst also great for your shoulder stability and mobility, adds an extra degree of difficulty for the core as we work extra hard to prevent extension through the lower and mid-back.