Your core muscles aren't unique. They need to be challenged in order to adapt and get stronger.
The most obvious way to do this is by using heavier weights and cables to maximize tension. But when you're short on equipment, finding core exercises that hit you hard can be a struggle. Here are four moves guaranteed to have you cussing without much equipment.
1. Side Plank Raise
You know those stupid dumbbell side bends that make your spine cry? Well, side plank raises are kind of the bodyweight equivalent, but better.
They're pretty much a side plank with your elbow raised up (on a box, bench, or couch) and performed dynamically. They safely load your spine in a lateral flexion movement while also working your hip abductors.
That means a lot of bang for your buck, hitting your deep abdominals, obliques, and glutes all in one. Side plank raises are relatively simple, but easy to scale.
How to Do It
- Start in a basic side plank position with your elbow elevated using a box, bench, or anything you have around your home.
- Keep your knees level, hips forward, and neck aligned.
- Keep your core and glutes engaged throughout.
- Allow your hip to drop towards the floor getting as much stretch as possible down the side of your torso facing the floor.
- Raise back up to the neutral starting point.
- Try 12-15 reps each side, or mix up some iso-holds with dynamic reps for fun.
To make them even harder, try holding some weight on your top hip. You can use pretty much anything – weight plate, sandbag, bag of protein powder, small child, etc.
2. Band-Locked Leg Raise
The leg raise is basic, but doing it "locked-in" with a resistance band takes it to a whole new level. This is predominantly an anti-extension exercise, challenging your core to maintain a neutral spine when lowering down.
The resistance band creates whole-body tension, helped by the additional lat engagement from the straight-arm pulldown motion. Use a lighter band for more of a shaky and unstable feel, or a heavier band for more of a high-tension "trying not to pass out" kind of feel.
How to Do It
- Set the band in a rack about arms-length from the floor. Use anything that's sturdy to loop the band between: trees, fence posts, chairs, etc.
- Grab the band with a palms-down grip, then activate your lats by pulling the band downward in a straight-arm lat pulldown motion.
- Keep your low back pressed into the floor.
- Raise your legs up to vertical.
- Repeat for 12-20 reps.
To make these even harder, try holding something between your feet like a medicine ball. Or if you have good core control, have a partner (gently!) push your legs down to eccentrically overload your anterior core.
3. Long-Lever PPT Plank
The basic front plank is an inferior exercise for, well, everything! Make a simple switch to the long-lever plank (or RKC plank) to ramp up your core activation and overcome plank boredom.
This variation is made more challenging by the longer lever arm created by the greater distance between your elbows and feet. To make this even harder, you'll be actively pulling your pelvis up towards your ribs by engaging your abs and glutes.
This "cock up" motion (posterior pelvic tilt or PPT) forces your core to work even harder, evident by the whole-body shakes you'll be experiencing throughout.
How to Do It
- Begin in a basic front plank position using a foam pad or mat on your elbows for comfort.
- Bring your elbows and feet together.
- Walk your feet back to create a longer lever plank position. Your elbows should now be around forehead height.
- Posteriorly tilt your pelvis by engaging your abs and glutes.
- Imagine pulling your elbows down toward your toes, and toes up towards your elbows.
- Hold it for sets of 10-30 seconds.
Make it even nastier by throwing a few chains over your hips.
4. Plank Plate Press
Most good core exercises focus on maintaining a stable spine while your extremities (arms or legs) perform some kind of movement. For example, maintaining a stable pelvis and spine while your arms and legs move when running.
Plank plate presses are an advanced plank variation that challenge your ability to resist rotation and spinal extension while one arm moves. Not only will they light up your core, they'll fire-up your shoulders too. Try them with a light plate, dumbbell, kettlebell, or even just a water bottle. You'll need to start way lighter than you think!
How to Do It
- Place yourself in to a basic front plank position with your feet just a little wider than usual. You can adopt a narrower stance over time as you improve.
- Brace your core – imagine 360 degrees of air around your spine and abs with glutes engaged.
- Grip the plate, lift your elbow off the floor, and press overhead keeping parallel with the floor.
- Resist any rotation through your hips or spine.
- Go for time (20-30 seconds each side) or reps (10-15 reps each side).
To make it even harder, simply bring your feet in narrower to reduce the base of support. You can also try using a heavier weight in your pressing hand.
How Often Should I Train My Core?
As a general rule, 10-20 "stimulating" sets per muscle per week works best for a lot of people. This is true whether it's your pecs, biceps, or any direct core exercises. The only reason why many end up doing a lot more than 10-20 sets is the lack of "stimulation" going on in their workouts.
You can split your 10-20 sets up however you'd like, over however many exercises or days you prefer. If your equipment is limited, then try including some of the above exercises.