There is no single “perfect” core exercise that trumps all the rest. For example, one person may perform a core routine with minimal effort or poor form, reaping fewer results from it compared to a hard-working friend who knows how to properly engage her muscles with each rep. So, instead of giving you a list of the “Top 5 Best Core Exercises,” I’m giving you a list of ways you can ramp up any of your favorite core routines for optimal tone.
1) Use Gravity
Gravity genuinely makes a world of a difference for many types of exercise. For example, which do you think is harder? A) Leg Pressing 150 lbs or B) Free Form Squatting 150 lbs. The answer: B. This is because of gravity. Anytime you work against it, you have to more actively engage the core for support.
Planks, Decline Sit-ups, Captain’s Chair Leg Tucks/Raises, Roman Chair Back or Side Lifts, Balancing on One Leg + Medicine Ball Twists, and more!
2) Increase Your “Lever Length”
Lever Length is basically an exercise pro’s lingo for the distance between your core and your limbs. The longer you stretch your arms or legs away from your body while performing a core exercise, the tougher it will get. Here is one easy to imagine scenario for how an increase in lever length can amplify the difficulty of a move – Imagine you’re picking up a heavy bucket of rocks. Is the bucket going to be more difficult to lift (i.e., it will feel heavier) if you A) pick the bucket up with your arms close to your body or B) pick the bucket up with your arms stretched far away from your body as you lift? The answer: B.
Examples of Increasing Lever Length:
Change a crunch with knees bent to a crunch with knees straight
Change a sit-up with a weight on your chest to a sit-up with a weight overhead
Change a side plank with one leg crossed in front for support to a side plank with the top leg lifting high into the air and the arm reaching high too
3) Don’t Forget Your Back
A ton of people save their core exercises for the end of a workout and then tend to focus those five short minutes or so on abs (crunches, sit-ups, the like), but it’s equally important to work your back muscles. Although you probably don’t often stare at your back in the mirror while you might regularly evaluate your belly, it’s still important to work it out – and not just for toning reasons. Since many people sit at a desk for the majority of their day, it’s important to counteract the stretching and stress on the back by providing it with proper support. Plus, if you perform a back exercise after every 2-3 ab exercises, you may notice that you’re getting a bit more out of your ab exercise too, since your entire trunk is getting worn out versus just one part of it.
Trunk Lifts, Supermans, Swimming, Swan Dives, Saw, Double Leg Kicks, Prone Gluteal Raises, Pelvic Tilts, and more!
4) Move in 3 Directions
I wrote an article in Feb. 2015 called Move in ways you never thought possible! that was all about gaining mobility and function by moving in all three planes of motion: frontal (front/back), saggital (side to side), and transverse (twisting). Moving in all three planes of motion also yields excellent full body tone, especially for our midsections! Plus, it helps to prevent injuries. So, I encourage you to think outside of the box with your core workouts. Do a million sit-ups and not a whole lot else? Time to switch it up with some side bends or obliques! Do a bunch of straight kettlebell swings? Time to add in some woodchops! Here are some ideas…
Frontal (front/back) Exercises:
Crunches, Double Leg Lifts, Sit-ups, Knee Tucks
Saggital (side to side) Exercises:
Side Bends with Weight, Side Planks, Isometric Crunch + Side Reaches
Transverse (twisting) Exercises:
Oblique Crunches, Woodchops, Side Leg Drops/Circles, Across Body Twists
5) Use Proper Breathing
It astounds me how few people know how to engage their transverse abdominus during core exercises – and it’s so important! So, now is the time to really pay attention, especially since engaging this corset-like muscle both helps prevent injuries AND helps flatten the stomach. I recently wrote an article for Mad Dogg Athletics that explains how to recognize whether or not you’re engaging this muscle (which is activated by the breath since it’s attached to the diaphragm):
So, how do you get the flat abs that you want?
“The key is to focus on whether or not you’re actively drawing your abs in with every core exercise that you perform. You should be able to exhale and squeeze your core in and also hold it tight while both inhaling and exhaling (demonstrating even better control).
You can even get a friend to video tape you while you perform a set of crunches. The first time performing the crunches, just do them without thinking too much. When watching this video, you may find that your abs look a little bit rounded at the top of your movement. This shows that you’re engaging the rectus abdominus (six-pack muscle) but not the transverse abdominus.
During the second set of crunches that you video tape, try to focus on exhaling as you crunch up (note: you should always try to exhale as your abs shorten/work hard). While you exhale, mentally and physically focus on actively drawing your stomach in. When you watch this video, you should see that your abs look a little more drawn in or flat at the top of your movement. The two videos may not look dramatically different but, as you can imagine, if you keep your core more actively engaged with every set and rep then you will reap better results.”
6) Incorporate Cardio
If you’re not prone to set aside time in your workout exclusively for core exercises, try to sneak core in during cardio. This will have your abs burning even faster due to the oxygen deprivation you’ll be fighting against. It’s really not that difficult to do either – just pick high-intensity core moves and alternate them with jumps, sprints or burpees, or perform cardio moves from plank positions like the following:
Mountain Climbers, Plank Jacks, Planks w/ Knee Tuck Jumps, Plank Hand to Toe Reach + Tap, Plank Diagonal Knee Tucks, and more!
7) Add Weights
This one is pretty obvious, but it often takes a bit of confidence (not to mention control) to start throwing around weights. So, be judicious when selecting which exercises to add weight to, especially if it’s fast moving and you feel unsure of yourself. Otherwise, have no fear of weights – they will help you tone, especially if body weight exercises aren’t giving you strong returns anymore.
Kettlebell Swings, Overhead Plate or Dumbbell Lifts, Planks with Dumbbell Exercises (Rows, Twists, Kickbacks), Woodchops (w/ Cables, Ball, Dumbbell), Twists with Plate or Dumbbell, Weight-Loaded Ab Machine, Captain’s Chair Lift w/ Weight Belt (or ball btwn legs), and more!
I have no doubt that these clever maneuvers can work for you! More than anything, getting the midsection you’ve been wanting for years is about putting in the effort, keeping exercises varied (for fabulous tone), and eating healthy (to reduce body fat and reveal the muscle you’ve worked hard for). Lastly, if you are just getting started with core exercises or if you’re a bit out of practice, I encourage you to check out last week’s article Core Support: KeepMeTight, to learn about additional ways to boost your confidence and core strength.
Do you have any signature tricks for your core workouts or any favorite ab exercises?! I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!
Yours in health and wellness,