As a personal trainer I’ll cover everything you need to know about core training, including the many benefits, the myths, and the best core exercises for function, performance, and, yes—killer abs.
What Is Core Strength Training?
If you asked 100 people on the street, “What is your core?” most people would describe your abdominal muscles, particularly your rectus abdominis, which sit squarely on the front of your abdomen. These are often called your six-pack muscles.
Your core is far more extensive (and important) than just that one muscle group.
Your core includes 35 different muscles that make up your trunk, including your abdominals, back muscles, diaphragm, hip muscles, and pelvic floor. You engage your core with any movement, and your core is always working to stabilize your frame and keep you upright.
Why Core Strength Training Matters
Building a strong core is about so much more than having visible abs . Core strength is the foundation of movement and determines our posture, and for some people, a weak core can even result in back pain.
A strong core is essential for athletic performance and optimum function. Whether you're dribbling a soccer ball or carrying a child on one hip–you need muscles that can both resist movement and create force on command.
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Core Strength Marketing and Myths
While magazines and fitness influencers alike love sharing core workouts, misinformation and myths abound, and I think most fitness advice misses the mark.
TikToks that promise you their workout will 'snatch your waist,' 'slim,' or 'trim' your core prey primarily on women's insecurities and make inflated promises based on what's currently trending, not on what actually works.
So, let's start by dispelling some common core myths I see daily in the fitness industry.
Anyone who promises to help you lose body fat from a specific area of your body is a scammer. That's just not how human physiology works. In truth, we have absolutely no control over where we lose body fat.
That doesn't mean the workout won't help you develop stronger, more stable core muscles. But it's entirely disingenuous for a trainer to promise fat loss in a particular area simply by working the muscles in that area.
The most direct way to see more of your abs is by reducing the body fat on top of them. You can also work to increase the size of your ab muscles so they appear more pronounced, and we'll get into that later.
You Should Train Core Every Single Day
It’s not dangerous to train your core every day, but I've dedicated my life to providing evidence-based education so you can understand how to optimize your training, so I’ll share my thoughts.
Devoting time out of your schedule each day for a core session just isn't necessary, and for most people, it's not optimal. Why is that? It comes down to a few things.
First and foremost, most people on planet Earth should center their strength training workouts around heavy, compound exercises. Lifts like squats, deadlifts, rows, presses, and pull-ups.
One of the many reasons why compound exercises like these are superior is that they place huge demands on the core. So, whenever you squat heavy, you're already getting a killer core workout. Because of this, if your goal is to have a strong, resilient core, you may not need to do any extra core training or very little to achieve well-rounded core strength and stability.
If your goal is to have the abs of a Greek god, however, you'll have to put in more work. But even then, most folks benefit from training abs only 3-5 times weekly.
Core Training Is Special and Different
Most people think training your core is wildly different from any other type of strength training.
Would you do 100 bicep curls? I sure hope not.
So why would you do 100 sit-ups unless you're training for the Marines?
Your core is made up of muscles, like any other muscle. So, they must be trained heavily and frequently enough to elicit growth adaptations.
Excellent core training follows the same principles as all other strength training modalities: primarily use the full range of motion, load the muscle, and rest adequately.
Define Your Core Strength Goals
As with any other strength training program, you will start with your goals before you move into exercise selection, frequency, etc.
What is your primary driver for adding core training to your program? Are you training for a sport? Fighting chronic pain? Trying to build the perfect physique for bodybuilding or your own gratification? Or are you just trying to be healthy and prevent injury?
You must include core exercises that build endurance and stabilization to resist movement and increase your core muscles' strength and size if you want visible abs.
But exactly which exercises you choose and the nitty-gritty of your programming will depend on your specific training goals.
Benefits of Core Training
You can categorize the many benefits of core training into two main camps: health benefits and athletic benefits. While the sport-specific benefits of core strengthening are significant, every adult should include regular core strengthening exercises in their training for multiple reasons.
Reduced Back Pain
Lower back pain is a huge issue for Americans, and two-thirds of adults will suffer from it at some point in their lives. Low back pain that develops without a particular cause is called non-specific lower back pain (NSLBP), and it can be incredibly frustrating and debilitating.
While the nature of NSLBP is not fully understood, some scientists hypothesize that weakness of the deep trunk muscles, poor balance, and poor coordination can contribute.
Multiple studies have also shown that regular core stability training treats lower back pain effectively in some people.
The human body can move in all planes of motion, and there is massive variation in how people stand, sit, and move, which is all safe for them. However, some postural deviations are widespread among folks who live a very sedentary lifestyle that can lead to pain and dysfunction.
Forward-neck posture, kyphosis, and significant pelvic tilts can all negatively impact coordination and performance and even cause pain. Regular core strengthening exercises can address some of the muscle imbalances that cause those postural deviations and improve posture, performance, and pain.
Improved Balance, Stability, and Coordination
With a well-balanced core strength training program that addresses muscular imbalances and weaknesses, athletes and non-athletes alike will enjoy better balance, improved stability, and an overall increase in coordination. These adaptations are crucial for athletes but also matter just as much for adults who want to have an easier time doing chores and avoiding injuries from falls.
Increased Athletic Performance
All of these adaptations, including better posture, improved stability, balance, coordination, and increased neuromuscular control, combine to increase sport-specific performance in athletes.
When core programs are designed well, they complement the rest of the athlete's training program and make them a more well-rounded and resilient athlete.
Reduced Risk of Injury
No one wants to experience an injury and lose time from work, school, and life. The benefits of core training work in concert to increase your coordination and physical resilience, which helps you avoid falls and injury.
Best Core Strength Exercises
Core training for visible, well-developed abs often looks different than core training for performance, function, and injury prevention.
Core Exercises for Core Stability & Function
The primary function of your core muscles is to support your spine and to transfer forces between your upper and lower body. Core strength is also essential for resisting movement, especially your side abs, called your obliques.
This first set of exercises will increase your overall core strength and stability, improve your movement patterns and balance, and lower your injury risk. They don't involve flexion but will keep your spine neutral and challenge your body to resist movement.
The bird dog is one of my favorite core exercises because it's excellent for beginners, people in rehab, and anyone new to this training style. The bird dog works your abdominals and back extensors from a quadruped position so it feels more stable.
Another phenomenal exercise for beginners is the glute bridge. This exercise is performed on the floor and has many variations to challenge you as you progress.
Glute bridges work your glutes, hamstrings, lower back, and abs.
Rounding out the top three best exercises for beginners is the dead bug. While the name doesn't exactly sound appealing, trust me, the results you'll experience are.
I like to think of dead bugs as the inverse of the bird dog, so you're lying on your back with your legs bent at 90 degrees and your arms held straight out at your chest. You alternate lowering the opposite leg and arm slowly while maintaining a neutral spine. Dead bigs work your ab muscles and deep back muscles.
Once you build a foundation of core strength, you can advance to more fun and challenging core exercises. A favorite amongst strength and conditioning coaches and trainers alike is the Pallof press.
The exercise challenges you to resist rotation while maintaining a neutral spine, and it fires up your obliques, transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, glutes, and shoulders.
Farmer Carry Variations
I adore farmer carries for core because they offer many benefits in a straightforward exercise. A traditional farmer carry involves picking up two heavyweights–dumbbells, kettlebells, or something cumbersome like a barbell–and walking a long distance with them.
They are fantastic as an anti-rotational and stabilizing core exercise because you must fight hard not to let the weight pull you to one side or let your shoulders roll forward.
I also love them because they work your grip strength, an aspect of health that needs to be talked about more. There are numerous farmer carry variations that will work nearly every muscle in your body. It also provides cardio and will improve your overall conditioning. Truly a gem of an exercise!
Try the Copenhagen plank if you have a strong core and are ready for a challenge. Designed for athletes, this advanced core exercise is challenging but will help you prevent lower extremity injuries and build a seriously strong body.
This plank variation works all of the abs and back muscles, plus the inner thigh and groin muscles.
Core Exercises for Muscular Development
Functional exercises that make us stronger, fitter, and healthier are fantastic. But if you want visible abs, you'll also want to build bigger ab muscles. These exercises are best in class for creating big, powerful, visible abs.
You may be shocked to note that most of the exercises on this list are not body weight /calisthenics moves. While those exercises are popular in magazines and on social media, they're far from the best for building a six-pack.
I make an exception, however, for this highly challenging floor exercise: the V-up. The V-up effectively works your upper and lower abs, obliques, hip flexors, adductors, and quads.
Hanging Leg Raises
One of the best exercises for building six-pack abs, hanging leg raises are incredibly challenging and great for building abdominal strength and size.
They work the rectus abdominis, obliques, and hip flexor muscles. They are also great for building grip strength.
Now, sit-ups and crunches have begun to fall out of favor lately. While I am a huge proponent of functional fitness, particularly anti-rotational core work, sit-ups are still helpful, especially weighted ones.
Again, if we want a six-pack, we either need to lose the body fat covering our abs or grow more prominent and defined abdominal muscles–typically a combination of the two.
If we want to grow bigger muscles, all the same rules apply. Why would we train the rectus abdominis any differently than the quadriceps?
We wouldn't! But for some reason, most people think that a million bodyweight exercises are the superior training method for building abs.
Decline sit-ups are incredibly challenging and fantastic for building your abs as they give you a huge range of motion and can be weighted as you progress.
The modified candlestick may be the most brutal ab exercise ever created. Gymnasts invented it, and it is killer. This exercise will work almost every muscle in your core, especially hitting your six-pack muscles.
And the best part is that it's a bodyweight exercise.
Core Training Programming & Technique
While core training follows most of the same principles of strength training as any other muscle group, there are a few unique elements you should master when it comes to breathing, setup, and technique.
Master Breathing Mechanics
Breathing mechanics are essential for all athletic pursuits, but many people ignore how they breathe until they get into core training. It may sound odd, but there are better and worse ways to breathe, so it's worth paying attention to.
Pelvic floor training is standard in most Western countries for women postpartum, but it's often neglected in the US. This can lead to dysfunctional core muscles, pain, incontinence, and other issues.
One of the first things you learn during pelvic floor therapy is proper breathing mechanics. Specifically, diaphragmatic breathing.
Put simply, this is a more efficient breathing pattern that translates into our overall fitness and lifting, especially your core training. Check out these instructions to learn how to perform diaphragmatic breathing.
Use the Full Range of Motion
Crunches have lost popularity due to their tiny range of motion. They aren't functional, it doesn't help us grow bigger muscles, and there are much better alternatives.
We know now that we want to train our core through a full range of motion, just like any other muscle group.
For that reason, if you're choosing between a few different flexion/extension exercises (anything where you're bending at the waist), opt for the one with the greater range of motion and maintain control throughout the movement.
Core Training Frequency?
You can tack on core work to the end of your lifting session up to three to five days per week but remember: if you're centering your workouts on heavy compound lifts, you likely won't need nearly that much core volume.
Your core workout rep ranges should be 5 to 30 reps per set for maximum muscle growth and 10-30 reps per set for core stability and endurance.
Training and Equipment Options
While you can certainly get a good core workout without equipment, especially as a beginner, you will need to add weight to continue to see progress, just like any other lift.
Here are some of the best options for resistance equipment that work well for core workouts.
Your core strength regimen should include both anti-rotational and stabilizing strengthening exercises and loaded movements to increase the size and strength of your abdominal muscles.
While beginners and the deconditioned can see results with bodyweight exercises only, you want to load your abdominal muscles and back muscles using progressive overload like any other muscle group.
Ensure you incorporate weighted exercises like decline sit-ups and hanging leg raises in addition to stabilizing core exercises such as the Pallof press, farmer carry, and the Copenhagen plank.
Core Strength Training FAQs
How important is core strength training for overall fitness?
Core training is quite important for overall fitness, athletic performance, and injury prevention.
A strong core increases coordination, improves movement patterns, and aids in tasks of daily life as well as injury prevention.
How often should I do core workouts?
If your strength program is centered around heavy compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, lunges, rows, and presses, you don't have to worry excessively about dedicating extra time just for core work. That's because those exercises use your core muscles, and that demand is adequate for most people.
If you don't do heavy compound lifts, or you don't lift at all but would like to incorporate core training, stick with 3-5 sessions per week.
Prioritize exercises that challenge deep core stability and movement resistance and progressively overloaded ab exercises through their full range of motion.
Can core strength training help improve posture?
While the empirical evidence is lacking, there is loads of anecdotal evidence from trainers and physical therapists that, for some people, poor posture can contribute to chronic pain, especially in the neck and back.
Strengthening core muscles, such as the lower trapezius, can improve posture and decrease pain for some.
What are the benefits of incorporating core strength training into my fitness routine?
The benefits of a strong core include enhanced stability, better balance, improved posture and coordination, reduced risk of injury, and increased athletic performance.
What are some common mistakes to avoid during core strength training?
Common mistakes to avoid regarding core training include:
- Falling for the spot reduction myth
- Underloading the core muscles
- Using the wrong rep ranges
- Not treating them like every other muscle group
The muscles of the core are not unique. They must be able to resist movement, stabilize the trunk, and produce force. Train them accordingly.
Frontiers in Psychology. Non-specific Low Back Pain and Postural Control During Quiet Standing—A Systematic Review.
The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. A Systematic Review of the Effectiveness of Core Stability Exercises in Patients with Non-specific Low Back Pain.
Sports Health. Core Stability Training for Injury Prevention.