Many people crank up their core workouts looking for a flatter, more toned tummy—and hey, nothing wrong with a little vanity mojo! But if getting visible abs is your only focus when it comes to training—and you’re doing a million sit-ups to get there—your plan might backfire.
“The core isn’t one muscle; it’s a relationship of a bunch of muscles that cover your whole trunk, connecting your hips, spine, neck and shoulders,” says performance coach Brett Klika, certified strength and conditioning specialist (C.S.C.S). And those super-targeted ab exercises leave a lot of it out of the picture.
But there are plenty of staple exercises that are efficient at to hitting all your MVP muscles. Incorporate the moves below into your routine for a sturdier core.
How to: Stand with feet hip-width apart, a heavy dumbbell in front of each foot. Hinge at the waist, keeping spine flat and neck neutral, to lower your torso until you can pick up weights. Push through heels and brace core to stand as you lift weights. Lower back down for 1 rep. Do three or four sets of 8 to 12 reps. Incorporate this into strength workouts twice a week.
How to: Hold a heavy dumbbell in each hand and stand with shoulders back. Keeping core tight and posture tall, take 10 steps forward; turn around, take 10 steps back to start, and lower weights. That’s 1 rep. Do three or four sets of 4 reps. Incorporate this into strength workouts twice a week.
How to: In tabletop position, raise right arm until parallel with ear, and simultaneously raise left leg until parallel with the floor. Return to start and repeat with left arm and right leg. Engage your core to stabilise yourself and to avoid falling to one side. Do three or four sets of 10 to 15 reps. Do this move every day.
Why Core Strength Matters
There are plenty of non-aesthetic reasons to boost core strength. “Some of the strongest people in the world don’t have six-packs, and they can lift a lot, or hit home runs, or perform tremendous feats of athleticism,” says Klika. Here’s what you’ll gain when you think bigger and train smarter:
1. You’ll avoid pain.
A strong core is a major factor in staying injury-free—particularly in the hips and knees, says Michelle Arent, C.S.C.S.
Research shows that women with good core engagement are better able to control how their knees move while performing strength exercises like single-leg squats and lunges, which may protect against ACL tears.
The core also helps stabilise the pelvis and femurs, says Arent, noting that the glutes (yes, also part of this powerhouse pack of muscles!) play a big role in fighting pain. Basically, your core is the foundation for all ache-free movement.
2. Your posture will improve.
Your core muscles wrap around and support your spine, making it easier to maintain posture. For one thing, proper positioning prevents ouch-inducing micro-movements between joints, says Stuart McGill, a professor emeritus of kinesiology at the University of Waterloo in Canada and author of Back Mechanic.
Plus, it just looks nice—good posture makes you appear confident, healthy and symmetrical.
3. You’ll boost your athleticism.
Building core power gives you a leg up in sports because your stability, balance and agility start at your centre. Think of your body as a chain in which your middle connects your arms and legs, says Klika.
If your core muscles work together while you move, there won’t be any “leaks” in the translation of power from the lower to the upper body. That allows you to rotate when throwing, punching or reaching, to control your spine during a serve, says Arent. And to help absorb force during decelerations like falls, dives and catches.