Your midsection is a fantastic collection of muscles, arranged around, over and under one another to create a 'belt' of muscular tissue. It goes far deeper than the superficial rectus abdominis (6 pack). This collection of muscle is primarily designed to stabilise the upper body and protect the spine.
Whilst these muscle can contract to create movements, in many respects your core musculature is more designed to resist movements- like extension, flexion and rotation- rather than create movements like you ask it to when you do sit-ups.
Training your core in ‘anti-movements’ will result in a functionally strong midsection, a happier spine and a well toned, beach ready ‘six pack’ (so long as you’re diligent in the kitchen too!)
So, without further ado, here are my top 10 core exercises for you to try. I’ve also ranked them in terms of difficulty and listed what type of function they’re training. So you can pick one for each function and also at a difficulty that suits you (so you can’t say I’m not kind to you!)
Movements for Anti-Extension:
By anti-extension we mean movements that stop your spine bending backwards (like when you’re doing a plank, you’re stopping your belly touching the floor- your spine going into extension). As you can imagine, this is pretty important to be strong at!
Ah, the humble plank. Simple as beans on toast but just as effective!
You’ll see these in gyms the world over. But that doesn’t mean you’ll see them done well.
You see, too many people treat the plank as an endurance exercise. It’s not really. The high King of spinal health- Doctor Stuart McGill, advocates the two minute plank as a test of abdominal strength, but that doesn’t mean it’s what he suggested people train their core with. He’s even said so himself! But the two minute test has become what many people adopted to train their core too.
No, you’re core is better trained in shorter, intensive bursts.
The way to intensify the plank is to focus on your breathing.
Imagine you’re holding a rubber balloon in your lips. You need to blow it up but you can’t let it fall out of your mouth. So you need to breath in through your nose then blow out, hard, through pursed lips.
This is how I want you to breath throughout any core training exercise. Doing so causes your diaphragm to get involved in the exercise too- a muscle often overlooked that plays a huge role in abdominal strength and core bracing!
So I want you to adopt your plank position, your body straight and taut, buttocks clenched and core engaged then proceed through 10 cycles of inhalation and exhalation. This should take about 30 seconds. Rest for 30 seconds and then repeat.
Do this for three to five sets.
When it starts to feel like you’ve mastered it, move onto a harder anti-extension exercise.
Overhead Palloff Press
You’ve probably not seen this one before. But it’s a variation of an anti-rotation exercise, the Palloff press, adapted to train anti-extension.
I’ve named it the Overhead Palloff Press (which I think is a very pragmatic and efficient name!)
To do this exercise you’ll need either the cables with the rope attachment at the gym or resistance bands.
Set up the cable or band at about head height when you’re standing up then whilst holding the band or cable, turn round and get down onto your knees, picking up the weight stack or getting resistance from the band as you do so.
Aim to keep your body around 45 degrees with the ground (leaning too far forward makes the exercise easier).
Much like when you’re doing the plank, I want you to squeeze you’re glutes (bum muscles!) and brace down with your core.
At this point the resistance is going to be trying to pull you backwards into extension. You’re going to use your core to resist as you move through the same breathing cycle as you learnt doing the plank. 10 breaths in through the nose, 10 hard breaths out through the mouth like you’re blowing up a balloon.
If it’s your first time doing the exercise, just hold the resistance at shoulder level.
But, we can intensify the exercise by adding in an overhead press!
As you breath out, press the resistance overhead. Doing so is lengthening the distance between the weight pulling you back and your core- put simply it makes it much harder. As you finish your breath out, return the resistance to shoulder height, breath in through your nose and go again!
Start with 3 sets of 10 breaths and gradually increase the number of breaths or the number of sets. As you get comfortable you can also start to use more resistance, but never do so at the expense of proper technique!
The ability to load this exercise is what makes it such a valuable tool for your arsenal- it grows with you.
Some might argue that the overhead palloff is harder than a TRX plank, but I disagree for most people. The palloff can be adjusted in resistance more easily to adapt to a person’s strength level. You can make a TRX harder or easier too, but it’s inherent instability still makes it too much for a lot of people!
The handles of a TRX will wobble about, challenging your core in cruel and unusual ways!
The higher you set the handles the more upright you will stand, making it easier, but if you’ve mastered the plank and outgrown the overhead palloff press you might want something more challenging.
The feet elevated TRX plank if what you’re looking for.
Find a step or box for your feet and set the TRX handles low enough that you can get yourself into a press-up position with your body parallel to the floor.
We are going to do the same balloon breathing technique now and keep our entire body taut and controlled- especially those glutes and your core!
3 sets of 10 breaths is a good place to start, then build up the sets from there.
If you’re a true badass you might even eventually consider a weight-vest for these!
Anti-rotation applies to your core stopping your lumbar spine (lower back) from rotating too much. We don’t want too much rotation to be occurring in the lumbar spine both for spinal health but also performance. We do want plenty of rotation at the thoracic spine and hips (both places that most people can’t rotate…) but that’s a story for another article. For now lets focus on building the strength to resist rotation.
Plank with a reach.
You’ve done the plank, so now let’s modify to train anti-rotation.
Start with a standard plank position. Now, concentrate really hard and as you blow out, reach one of your arms out and touch the ground about 30cm in front of you.
Return the arm to the plank position as you finish your exhale. Breath in through your nose then do the other arm as you exhale again.
The real trick to this is to not let the rest of your body move, at all.
Apart from your arm moving you shouldn’t change position at all! That means no bum shooting into the air and no rotation or lateral movement in the hips.
3 sets of 10 breaths is a great place to start, again.
Much like it’s cousin the overhead Palloff Press, we are going to use the cable or resistance bands for this one.
This time set the cable or band at around about hip height.
You’re going to set up sideways on to the cable or band this time and take the resistance by taking a lateral step away from the cable or band holding the band or cable handle with both hands at your belly button.
Having your feet slightly wider than shoulder width and softening your knees also helps with this one.
But, as usual we want glutes and abs squeezed.
Remember our balloon breathing? Surprise! We are going to do it here too…
As you breath out, press the cable or band away from you. Return it to your body as you finish your exhalation.
Go for 10 breaths per set and start at three sets.
You can make this one harder with either more breaths, more sets or by upping the resistance- so it’s a great exercise that can progress with you.
It was a tough call as to whether this or the next exercise should be the hardest, but I chose Palloff press as slightly easier because it felt like there was slightly less going on in the exercise overall. However, these can still be really hard if you load them enough!
Single arm dumbbell row.
But wait, isn’t that a back exercise?!
Yup, it is. But it’s also a pretty great anti-rotation exercise. Think of it as two birds with one stone- training efficiency!
I want you to stand with both feet on the floor and the arm that’s not holding the dumbbell bracing you on something like a bench.
Squeeze your glutes and brace your core (I’m going to keep saying it because it’s important!)
Gravity is now pulling the dumbbell down and because you’re only loaded on one side it’s trying to force your body to rotate- DON’T LET GRAVITY WIN!
As you’re rowing the dumbbell into your hip and lowering it under control, keep your body perfectly flat and level with the ground.
Breath exactly as we’ve already outlined- blow up the balloon as you pull the dumbbell towards you.
Do three sets of 10 breaths and make the exercise harder by increasing sets, reps of the weight of the dumbbell.
Anti-lateral Flexion involves not letting your spine bend sideways. So basically the opposite of how most people go about trying to target their obliques with side bends! Try these instead-
Another plank, seriously?! Sorry, but they work!
This time though you’re going to be on one elbow and using your obliques primarily to stop your body caving sideways.
As per all other exercises, glutes and core will be squeezed throughout… (I’m bored of typing it, so you must be bored of reading it! But don’t forget to do it!)
Really focus on not letting your hips drop towards the floor, that’s the secret here.
Much like our other planks we are going to do balloon breathing.
3 sets of 10 breaths will get you started, but if you feel like overachieving then you can hold a dumbbell in your other hand to add some extra resistance to the exercise.
Make like a hotel porter and start carrying things about!
But you’re only allowed to use one hand. (Have you seen Hot Tub Time Machine? Remember the one armed porter- he would have crazy strong anti-lateral flexion!)
These are farmer’s walks but with weight in one hand only.
You want to stay completely upright as you do these too, you shouldn’t have excessive body lean as it defeats the object!
We want to be training your body to stabilise and stay upright. If you need to walk half bent over then the weight is too heavy!
Do thirty seconds walks with these and do three to five walks total. Make them harder by upping the weight or the time you’re carrying for.
Exercises that kind of do a bit of everything!
So in reality exercises don’t quite fit into neat little boxes. Each one of the exercises we’ve gone through will be working more than one function of your core, but they’re better at doing one aspect or another.
The following few exercises are some extra, fun little add-ons that I like for the people who really want to boost their core training!
These are a combo of the suitcase carry from earlier with something called a waiter walk thrown in on the other arm.
(what’s with naming exercises after service professions?!)
Hold a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell at your side like a suitcase carry and press a lighter dumbbell or kettlebell overhead.
Now go on a walk.
Switch arms next set.
Start with 30 seconds of walking with 30 seconds of rest.
You’ll have to do an even number of walks to get things even, so you can start with either 2 or 4 sets depending on how you’re doing that day.
I love Farmer’s Walks. They are so under utilised it’s criminal! They train everything from your fingertips to your toes.
In terms of core training they also teach you to stabilise whilst moving and breathing under load.
I’ve heard the effect described as ‘building anaconda strength’- the ability to create massive internal pressure to stabilise the spine.
It’ll help you with almost any physical task you could think to undertake!
I think that if you’re serious about being seriously strong, you should be striving to be able to carry your own body weight in each hand for at least a few metres.
Of course there are loads of core exercises that I haven’t included in this list. I’m sorry if you’re favourite isn’t here! There are hundreds and thousands of exercises that could have made this list.
It might seem strange that I’ve not put in any sort of ab-rollout too, but I just see them done wrong so much! They’re a fantastic exercise, if you do them right!
But, with the ten exercises we’ve talked about here you can build yourself a seriously strong core. If you’d like anymore help or explanation of any of the exercises or you just have a burning question you want answered then please, drop me a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, you can find lot’s more helpful content at www.runjumplift.co.uk and across my social media on facebook (@runjumpliftuk) and Instagram (@runjumpliftuk)
Until next time!
Dan Mennell is a Personal Trainer and Strength Coach working in Staffordshire and Shropshire.
He writes regular fitness articles and creates other informative free-content.
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