Core Exercises for Total Ab Development
Want an athletic core and impressive abs? That's going to take more than a few sets of crunches. Here are the six main types of core movements and the exercises you'll need to slap some muscle onto your midsection.
1. Rack Knee Raise: Spinal Flexion
Think about closing the space between your ribs and pelvis. This is created by spinal flexion, not just at the mid to upper part of your spine but also in your lumbar spine near your pelvis. You're intentionally creating posterior pelvic tilt. These exercises focus on the more superficial rectus abdominis.
Contrary to popular belief, flexing your spine in any direction won't cause disk herniations if it's not combined with spinal compression. And in fact, pain-free flexion of the spine is a natural and healthy function.
While spinal flexion will activate more upper and middle fibers, exercises that emphasize a posterior tilt of your pelvis preferentially activate the lower fibers of your rectus abdominis. Knee raise and knee tuck variations are some of the best.
For the rack knee raise (see video above):
- Use a Smith Machine: A bar in a power rack will work, but a Smith machine is better. It'll stop the gym police from alerting the sirens, and you can easily adjust the height to be just above your underarms.
- Use Pads: The locked-in position over the bar has a different feeling to it than your standard hanging knee raises. It feels like a more targeted ab exercise and really helps you focus on posteriorly tilting your pelvis at the top. You'll just need to throw on a bar pad for comfort.
- Get Your Knees to Your Elbows: This exercise is self-limiting. Full range of motion is when your knees raise higher than your hips and your pelvis posteriorly tilts. Your abs aren't hip flexors. The only important part of any knee tuck is the final portion at the top. So getting your elbows to your knees every time should be the main focus.
2. Battle Rope Core Strike: Rotation
A strong and athletic-looking midsection isn't complete without a thick set of internal and external obliques. To hit them, include exercises that focus on rotation and lateral flexion.
Russian twists and rotational crunch variations are old-school favorites, but including more power-based exercises can add some intensity to your training while building athleticism.
- Use Ropes or a Band: Core strikes are an explosive full-body movement where you're learning to "whip" power from your legs and hips through your core. A rope or band will give you some resistance to fight against.
- Vary Your Chopping Angles: Chopping down to a low angle allows you to put some power into the ropes. Switching to a more horizontal or high angle can also work well.
- Explode and Reset: Battle rope strikes can work as a conditioning exercise or as part of a power training protocol. Explode and reset on every rep. Over time, progress with a more complex version where you do a series of reps with a faster transition.
3. Tate Side Bend: Lateral Flexion
People forget about lateral flexion. And since core training is an afterthought for many, lateral flexion exercises are like the afterthought of the afterthought. But well-developed obliques are an essential part of any physique, so include some lateral flexion exercises to help you get a step closer. Common exercises include dumbbell and cable side bends.
Tate side bends were popularized by Dave Tate and allow you to use a respectable amount of cable weight while also helping you feel locked in. This makes it easy to focus on the area you're trying to target.
- Get a Height-Adjustable Cable: Ideally, use a height-adjustable cable so the handle can start and finish close to your side. Alternatively, you'd need to muscle down the handle with both hands before setting yourself in position.
- Keep It Close: The cable should stay close to your arm so the resistance is directed safely and effectively. The handle should also be relatively close to your thigh throughout the side bend.
- Remember, It's a Side Bend: It's easy to want to flex forward a little. But remember to focus on lateral flexion. Imagine a pane of glass directly in front of you. Now, don't head-butt it! Laterally flex your spine only, squeeze your obliques hard on the way down, then stretch a little as you come back to the top.
4. Landmine Squat: Anti-Rotation
"Anti" exercises are what you might typically think of as core training. They challenge your core's ability to resist (in this case) rotation. These exercises are highly useful in both injury prevention and sports performance training. Think of MMA, where your ability to resist an opponent twisting and throwing you around like a dishcloth has its benefits.
- Decide If You Want to Squat or Not: You can do these in a standing, fully-upright position to make them easier. Adding a squat does nothing to load the pattern itself. Instead, your hip mobility and stability is further challenged, and you'll need to work harder to switch on your hip stabilizers to stop your knees and hips from collapsing. Also, it's just plain difficult.
- Make Sure the Bar Moves, Not You: Stay locked in and tight. This means your arms are allowed to move the bar from left to right, but your job is to resist going into rotation. There might be a little movement, especially if your biceps hit your pecs a little early on, but the point is to resist.
- Get 360 Degrees of Air: It's pretty hard to breathe during exercises like this, so you're better off taking short, sharp breaths every time the bar moves to one side. Get ready and imagine filling your midsection with 360 degrees of air around your spine. Try to create high levels of intra-abdominal pressure throughout.
5. Swiss Ball Knee Tuck to Roll-Out: Anti-Extension
Anti-extension exercises involve resisting spinal extension. If you're doing a plank with a saggy back, then you're probably not resisting very well. Resisting extension should be a key component of any training program.
Many would consider ab roll-outs the king of anti-extension exercises. I wouldn't disagree. They can be progressed by looping a band https://youtu.be/L5aWtzB7Hf8 around your ab wheel, wearing a weighted vest, or doing hamstring-activated roll-outs.
Ab roll-outs are excellent for learning to resist extension in the bottom position where there's some eccentric loading, as well as being able to load flexion at the top. A Swiss ball knee tuck to roll-out is one way to combine the benefits of a roll-out with a knee tuck.
- Get Stable: A ball adds an element of instability. Although using a ball doesn't instantly make every exercise "core," for our purposes, it works well.
- Set Your Shins on the Ball: The ball should be about mid-shin height. There's a shorter lever arm making the roll-out component a little easier than your traditional ab wheel or barbell roll-outs. The ball is more unstable, though, which adds an element of difficulty. The addition of the knee tuck is the icing on the cake and helps hit the lower abdominal fibers.
- Make It Harder: If you have the hamstring length to handle it, you can progress these into strict pikes.
6. Uneven Trap Bar Deadlift: Anti-Lateral Flexion
Anti-lateral flexion exercises involve (you guessed it) resisting lateral flexion. With these exercises, your choices are more limited. Sure, holding a side plank is a simple way to include anti-lateral flexion, but does holding that position transfer to real life or sports? Hardly.
But uneven loaded carries are excellent. For example, a farmers carry with just one dumbbell or uneven dumbbell weights will force you to resist being pulled into lateral flexion and hip adduction. Suitcase deadlifts are another good choice, as are unevenly loaded deadlifts using a trap bar.
- Treat Them Kinda Like a Deadlift: But don't program them like one. Although deadlifts are in the name, these should not be considered on par with your heavy deadlifts. Instead, they're more of an assistance and core exercise.
- Experiment With Loading: The weight should be sufficient enough to challenge the movement as a whole but also uneven enough to force you to resist bending sideways. For some, just a few pounds difference can be enough; for others, at least a 25-pound difference is needed. Err on the side of caution, but play with the weight on each side.
- Focus On Staying Rigid From Start to Finish: You're resisting being pulled laterally throughout the exercise. Just like a suitcase deadlift, you want to make it look like a deadlift from the bottom range to the top. Despite the uneven load, onlookers should see no difference in how you move.
Fill the Gaps
Hitting all the functions of your core can create a comprehensive ab training plan, but don't try to fit all of these exercises into one workout. And consider general exercises – ones you may not even think of as core work – as potentially having some benefit.
For example, push-ups can be considered moving planks (anti-extension), and heavy single-arm dumbbell rows can challenge your ability to resist rotation (anti-rotation). Consider your program as a whole. If it has a few gaps, plug these in where they're needed.
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