Even if you’re actively chasing a six-pack, there are plenty of other reasons to strengthen your core. If you want to PR in your deadlift and bench press or pack on muscle mass, training your core will help. A stronger core allows you to brace more effectively during heavy lifts — which means your form (and therefore results) will be better overall. Training your core also means more stability. So if you’re an athlete, you’d do some core work.
When you’re trying to build a strong core, doing just exercises that also target the core won’t cut it. Sure, performing your principle lifts properly will improve ab strength — but if you want to improve those lifts substantially, dedicate some time to core-specific work. Read on to learn about the benefits of core training, how to maximize your abs’ potential, and the best core workouts for your goals.
Best Core Workouts
Best Core Workout for Strength
By strengthening your core, you’ll directly improve compound lifts. A strong core allows for a better ability to brace during key lifts, and therefore more stability. So, if you’re looking to bust through a deadlift plateau, try focusing on strengthening your core.
If you’re an experienced lifter, you can perform this core strength workout up to three times a week. Make sure you’re planning your recovery around your main lifts. It might be tempting to breeze through the strength circuit because it’s “just” your core but take your time.
Rest for 45-60 seconds between each different exercise in the circuit. Rest two to three minutes between circuit rounds. Where applicable, increase the weights by five to 10 pounds once you complete the upper rep range with perfect form.
Best Core Workout for Muscle Growth
Your core muscles are just that — muscles. And like any muscle, they respond to the same rules that you’d follow to build your biceps. The core muscles can endure a lot of volume because they are largely made up of type I muscle fibers, which are more resistant to fatigue. But that doesn’t mean they don’t also have type II fibers to develop. For that reason, the workout below employs a rep scheme that allows for a lot of weight to be used (relatively speaking) and enough volume to fatigue endurance-based type I fibers.
The workout below pairs bodyweight movements with weighted exercises in a more moderate rep range. Because you want to grow the core muscles, you’ll accumulate a lot of volume (which has been shown to spark hypertrophy). Focus on your abs during these exercises; you don’t want to feel other muscles engage.
Perform the below movements as a circuit, resting two to three minutes between rounds.
- Weighted Hanging Leg Raise: 4 x 10-15
- Kettlebell Dead Bug Pullover: 4 x 10-15 per side
- Pallof Press: 4 x 10-15 per side
- Weighted V-Up: 4 x 10-15
- Weighted Hollow Hold: 4 x as long as you can maintain full core tension
- Weighted Lying Toe Reach: 4 x 15-20
Best Core Workout for Power
Your core is the literal center of your body. When it comes to generating power — in the form of a box jump, punch, or slapshot — it all starts with your core. To jump, your abs crunch down. To throw a punch, you rotate in and then back out. Yes, your arms and legs are key players, but the core is where power generates from. Your core also keeps you stable and balanced, which is important for nailing all the activities mentioned above.
You’ll be incorporating very high-energy, dynamic moves into this core power workout. The focus on speed and plyometrics will develop the definition of power — generating a lot of force in a short amount of time — with an emphasis on your core muscles.
This workout is incredibly taxing, so be sure to perform it after any heavy lifting you have planned. Rest for 90 seconds to three minutes between moves, depending on your fitness level and experience. Do this workout two or three times a week.
Best Bodyweight Core Workout
Training your core with weights is a great way to help your ab muscles grow, but that doesn’t mean bodyweight core training isn’t effective (spoiler: it is). Going back to “basics” will help you increase kinesthetic awareness and re-teach you how to brace. You can easily integrate bodyweight core workouts into at-home training routines or use them to supplement heavy lifting programs.
Just because you’re using “only” your body weight doesn’t mean you should do it every single day. Your core muscles still need to recover. (And if you feel like you can do it every day, you might not be going hard enough.) Try to complete each circuit with minimal rest and move through each exercise slowly. Don’t forget to breathe.
Perform this circuit three to four times through, resting two to three minutes between rounds.
- Spider Push-Up: 4 x 8 per side
- Hanging Leg Raise (switch with Lying Leg Raise if you don’t have a pull-up bar): 4 x 10-15
- RKC Plank: 4 x 10-20 seconds
- Hollow Hold: 4 x as long as you can maintain full core tension
- Dead Bug: 4 x 20 per side (extend your legs fully and tap the ground with your heel with each rep)
Anatomy Of Your Core
Knowing a little bit about your core muscles and what they do can help pinpoint areas for growth in your core training. It’s not just about crunches.
When you think about the six-pack muscles, you’re thinking about these guys. The rectus abdominis is responsible for spinal flexion. Because it’s mostly made up of Type I muscle fibers, it’s highly resistant to fatigue — that’s one of the reasons that you need to do more than just sit-ups to train your core.
Internal and External Obliques
The obliques run diagonally back and forth across the sides of your torso. They help with resisting rotational movements, creating rotational movements, and hip flexion. When you think of training them, think Pallof presses and chopping movements.
If you feel unstable during heavy squats or deadlifts, chances are you need to strengthen your transverse abdominis. Loaded compound movements and planks train this deep core muscle. It’s responsible for stabilizing and supporting your spine pretty much all the time.
Your core consists of muscles in front of you and behind you. Your back is half your support system, and these lower back muscles are responsible for spinal extension and resisting spinal flexion (think: deadlifting). You need to keep these guys strong to balance out powerful abdominals.
Nope, this isn’t a quadricep muscle. The deepest abdominal muscle, the quadratus lumborum, lives along the sides of the spine on your back, just about the hip. It keeps your spine stable and helps maintain a strong, steady posture.
Benefits Of Core Workouts
Training your core isn’t just about revealing a six-pack. (You won’t be able to do that anyway without training specifically to alter your body composition.) You’ll also likely be able to move more weight and get better at breathing and focusing all around.
Strengthen Your Main Lifts
Squats and deadlifts can make your core decently strong. But training your core on its own can create an awesome feedback loop of making your main lifts much stronger. Your core is what transmits all that force during compound movements. So the stronger it is, the more you lift.
Improve Mental Discipline and Breathing
If you’re taking the high-volume approach to core training, it’s going to require mental discipline. While you’re holding your planks, you’ll fight losing focus and wonder what the point of it all is — especially when the burning kicks in. Training toward true failure, especially with your body weight, is definitely an exercise in mental toughness.
And if you’re training your abs with heavier weights, it still requires discipline. To avoid overcompensating with your low back or hip flexors, concentrate on engaging the proper muscles. This forces you to focus on proper breathing — which is good for your lifts and mental health.
Reduce Injury Risk
There are never guarantees against training accidents — but building a strong core can help. Making your core stronger helps prevent painful good morning squats. Strengthening your core also helps avoid accidentally rounding your back while deadlifting. Because your core is sturdier from training, you’ll be better able to resist gravity and injury — and lift heavier.
Increase Ab Visibility
No, you can’t spot reduce body fat and “turn fat into muscle.” But you can grow your abdominal muscles. Eating and working out for changing your body composition plus core work can make your abs more visible. Think of it as reducing your body fat while making your abs bigger, which is a good combination to make them more noticeable.
How to Program Core Workouts
Integrating core-specific training into your program depends on your goals, experience, and training split. If you have a three- or four-day split, you might decide to tack on a core day all on its own using one of the workouts above. Use a little trial and error to learn about your own body’s recovery.
Does targeting your core make your deadlift feel shakier the next day? Program your core training after your deadlift day. Does core work make your squat feel stronger because you can feel your bracing pattern better? Program a core day before your volume squat day. If you want to train your core specifically but don’t devote a whole day to it, that’s okay. In that case, program these workouts for the end of pull-oriented days.
Your core will already be activated from that back work. Plus, it can serve as a useful finisher physically and mentally — the discipline core work requires will be great for your overall training. Because your ab muscles can be trained relatively frequently, you can train them specifically up to four times a week. Just make sure you’re giving them the rest they need in between. Abs are not, alas, magical muscles, and need to recover, too.
How to Warm-Up Your Core
You won’t be throwing three plates on the bar to train just your core. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to warm up your core. Ideally, you’ll be including core activation movements in your full-body warmup anyway. This core workout warmup is great for use before you head into your core-specific routine, but it’s also helpful to integrate these moves into your regular warmup.
If you’re training abs after the lift-focused part of your training session, it can still be helpful to use these gentle bodyweight core moves to reset your body. You’ll signal to your brain and body that it’s time to train your core specifically. You’re setting yourself up for success when you warm up your core because you’re less likely to yank your arms and legs inappropriately afterward.
Whether you’re looking to break through an overhead press plateau or generally become a more powerful athlete, training your core directly will help. You don’t have to have core-only training days — although you can — to see results. Nor do you have to train your core every day. Finding a balanced but specific approach to core training is just as important as finding that for the rest of your lifts. Hopefully, you’ve found some of that right here.