Just about everyone wants six-pack abs.
That’s a fine goal, and many people can absolutely make it happen by dialing in on your training and diet. If you care about more than just looks, however, you’re fixating on the wrong thing. A six-pack might be great for aesthetic purposes, because a set of defined torso muscles have become our society’s go-to signifier for peak health, fitness, and virility—but there’s more to actually being healthy than just a set of prominent muscles.
For peak performance, you’re going to want to build total core strength to support the muscle group’s primary function: stabilizing the spine. That includes all parts of your abs (your rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and obliques) along with muscles that make up your posterior chain, like your erector spinae and, to an extent, your glutes. For this, you’re going to need to be smarter with your training and focus on more than just exercises that feature flexion (i.e. situps and crunches).
Some trainers insist that performing heavy compound lifts that load the spine like squats and deadlifts are enough to build formidable core strength. Those movements can definitely help—but you should also supplement your program with some dedicated core training, too. There’s no drawbacks for focused muscle group isolation, and as an added benefit, you’ll be even stronger for those big barbell lifts, too.
These five exercises will help you to build a more balanced, strong core. Add them to your workouts individually, or perform them all together as a killer core circuit. Once you get used to the basics, start scaling up by adding a load to increase your strength gains.
The 5 Core Strengthening Exercises
3 sets of 6 to 8 reps
This gymnastics staple forces you to master a difficult postural position. Protip: start with leg lifts and holds if you have a tough time getting into the full position. Once you’ve built up mastery, add the additional lever of your arms. Here’s a more detailed explanation of the move’s subtleties.
work up to 60 seconds
Holding a plank for a long period of time can be an impressive feat of endurance—but that’s not exactly what you want for core strength gains. Instead, you should be focused on holding maximum tension in the position for the entire time you work. Once you go beyond about a minute, that will be too tough to provide actual returns, so cut the marathon sessions short. For more detailed tips on the form, check out this guide.
4 sets of 10 to 12 reps
You’ll build lower body power along with core strength with this exercise, but you need to make sure that you’re moving the right way. The kettlebell swing is not a squat and lift—it’s one continuous momentum transfer movement. Hinge at the hips and drive the weight up, then allow the momentum to swing the weight back. For more guidance, check out this detailed explainer.
3 sets of 8 to 10 reps
You’ll need a resistance band or cable for this exercise, which focuses on anti-rotation. Your main job: holding your torso steady against resistance. Try to cycle through standing, kneeling, and half-kneeling positions for an extra challenge. Get more on the move here.
30 seconds on/off
If you need to feel a burnout before you feel satisfied with a workout, mountain climbers can be your perfect core training closer. Just don’t let your form flag—your butt should be just as low as in your perfect plank position, and your leg drive should be under control. Check out more details with this guide.
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