A strong and stable core is the foundation of fitness. Whether you are just starting out on your fitness journey and want to find beginner’s exercises or you are a serious athlete, having the right abdomen workout plan is key. If you want to strengthen your core, the best approach is to create a go-to lineup of the best core exercises that’ll make your training easy and automatic.
Why force yourself to sweat through as many sit-ups as you can possibly manage (which are not as effective or even safe as you might think) to get in shape? For real results, you’ve got to understand the anatomy of the muscles of your stomach and what truly works for strengthening them. From low-impact exercises to powerful moves that will help you get a flat stomach with muscle tone, let’s count down the most effective and simple ab exercises, and look at some of the science behind them.
Here is your guide to powerful and effective core workouts and the science behind them.
What’s the Difference Between Your Stomach and Core?
Before we dive into introductory core routines, let’s clear up some fitness misconceptions and look at terminology. The first and most common fitness misconception is on the topic of the words “stomach” vs “core.” People sometimes use the words “stomach” and “core” as if they have the same meaning but it is important to keep in mind that they are different parts of your body. As you’re searching for useful and accurate information online, you want to have the correct terminology down.
As you know, your stomach is the key organ of your digestive system. This is where your food is digested and, while it is located in the upper part of your abdomen (so technically a part of your abdomen), it is wrong to refer to anything in your body as being your “stomach” beyond this specific organ. There are no stomach workouts beyond processing food because your stomach is a digestive organ and nothing more.
Your core, on the other hand, is a group of muscles in your torso that stabilises and supports your spine and pelvis. This is that part of your body that gives you your posture and keeps your body moving in a steady and safe way during those everyday activities. Unlike your stomach, which is a single organ, your core has several different components.
When you are on the hunt for ab workouts to add to your fitness practice, you will want to take a look at the full variety of different core muscles that they work. For a handy reference to use as you’re making a workout plan, your core muscles include the following:
- rectus abdominis, the so-called six-pack muscle
- transverse abdominis, a deep muscle that wraps around your abdomen
- external and internal obliques, the muscles on the sides of your abdomen
- erector spinae, the muscles running along your spine
- multifidus, the small muscles along your vertebrae
- pelvic floor muscles
What’s the Difference Between Your Core and Abs?
Your core and abs are not the same things, and that is an important piece of info that you’ll want to keep in mind. Your core is that entire group of muscles in your torso that stabilises and supports your spine and pelvis while the abs are only one particular part of your core. Although your abs are a part of your core muscles, your core is more than just abs.
When we talk about abs, we are talking about abdominal muscles. While you have four different abdominal muscle groups, most people are referring to the rectus abdominis when referring to abs. If you are looking at exercises for abs, you will see that most of them will focus on this specific muscle because it is the muscle group that will create that defined look.
Key Muscles of the Core
Whether you are looking for simple moves or want an intense sweat session, it is important to be aware of which ab muscles you’re working. The best ab workout plan hits every muscle and works your abdomen in different ways.
To help you understand the value of each workout, it’s important to be away The key muscles of the core include:
- Rectus Abdominis: The rectus abdominis is the most talked about core muscle and is often called the six-pack muscle. It runs up and down your body alongside the front of your abdomen and is responsible for flexing your spine and bringing your ribcage closer to the pelvis.
- Transverse Abdominis: It is the innermost layer of your abdominal muscles. It spans horizontally around your abdomen like a corset. This is a key muscle because it is what provides core stability and support during daily movement and workout sessions.
- External Obliques: Your external obliques are on either side of your abdomen and run down the length of your core. They help you flex, twist, bend, and rotate.
- Internal Obliques: Your internal obliques are located under your external obliques and run diagonally. They work with your external obliques to help with rotation.
- Multifidus: Your multifidus is a group of small muscles that are connected together in the area alongside your spine. These core muscles provide stability and support to your vertebral column. This is key to maintaining a healthy alignment and preventing dangerous movement during day-to-day life.
- Erector Spinae: Your erector spinae muscles are a group of muscles that run parallel on each side of your spine. They help with spinal extension and lateral flexion while giving you the support to maintain an upright posture.
- Pelvic Floor Muscles: Pelvic floor muscles are a group of muscles that support your pelvic organs to provide bowel control and bladder function. They are crucial to your core stability and bodily functions.
- Diaphragm: Your diaphragm separates your chest cavity from your abdominal cavity. It helps support breathing while creating the pressure that supports your centre when you are moving your body.
All of these key muscles of your core work together to give you stability and offer you support whenever you move. Training and strengthening each one of these muscles is vital for overall core strength and injury prevention. A good core strength workout should make use of targeted movement that focuses on each one of these muscles to give you a balanced workout and optimal results.
Basic Core Strengthening: Plank Variations
Plank is a key core exercise that will target different core muscles, including your rectus abdominis (aka the six-pack muscle that covers the length of your stomach from your ribs to pubic bone), transverse abdominis, obliques, and lower back muscles. It helps build core strength, stability, and endurance.
To get the most out of this simple ab workout, let’s look at a few common variations:
- Standard Plank: Start in a push-up position with your forearms on the ground (make sure that your elbows are aligned with your shoulders). Keep your body as in line as you can to create a straight line going from your head to heels. By preventing your body from collapsing or your hips from raising to release the pressure, you are engaging your core. Hold this position and maintain good form for as long as you’re able to hold it.
- Side Plank: Lie on your side with your elbow directly beneath your shoulder. Raise your hips from the ground, forming a straight line from your head to your feet. Hold that stationary pose for as long as you can and then switch sides.
- Plank with Shoulder Taps: In a plank position, lift one hand off the ground and touch your opposite shoulder. Keep alternating from one side to another while focusing on hip stability.
Effective Core Workout: Bicycle Crunches
Bicycle crunches are a practical exercise that will target your rectus abdominis, obliques, and hip flexors. Here’s how to do proper bicycle exercises:
- Lie on your back
- Put your hands behind your head
- Lift your legs off the ground
- Bend your knees to a 90-degree angle
- Draw your right elbow closer to your left knee while extending your right leg fully
- Switch sides and bring your left elbow towards your right knee.
Improve Balance and Flexibility with Russian Twists
Russian twists are great for your obliques and will seriously improve your rotational strength, flexibility, stability, and balance. Here’s how to safely and effectively do them:
- Sit on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground
- Lean back slightly until you can feel your core working (be sure to keep your back straight)
- Hold a weight/ medicine ball/ kettlebell with both hands
- Twist your torso to the right and tap the weight on the ground beside your hip
- Change the direction of tapping the ground again
Strengthen Shoulders and Upper Back Muscles with Exercise Ball Rollouts
Exercise ball rollouts are great for stability and will help build your shoulders, upper back, and abs. While this does require an exercise ball, it’s a great piece of easy-to-store low-cost exercise equipment that you can use over and over. Here’s how:
- Kneel on the floor with your hands placed on a stability ball (make sure that the ball is directly under your shoulders)
- Slowly roll the ball forward as you extend your arms. Make sure you are maintaining a straight line from head to knees.
- Engage your core as you pull the pack to the original position.
Helpful Tip: Exercise balls are called by different names, which can be a bit confusing. You might see a Swiss ball, Bosu ball, balance ball, fitness ball, yoga ball, stability ball, pilates ball, and physio ball referenced. Those are all the exact same things. If you are looking at a big round, inflatable ball that is designed to hold the weight of a person, it will work for any of these ab core exercises.
Leg Raises for a Strong Core, Hips, and Lower Back
Leg raises engage your lower abdominal muscles as well as your hip flexors and lower back. If you want an effective no-equipment core workout at home, here’s what you’ll want to do:
- Lie on your back with your hands under your glutes for support
- Straighten your legs and engage your core
- Slowly start to lift your legs off the ground (making sure that they stay straight)
- Lift your legs as high as you can, then slower start to lower (avoid arching your back as you go)
Prevent Lower Back Injuries and Boost Your Abs with Exercise Ball Crunch
Exercise ball crunches add an element of instability, which pushes your core muscles into overdrive and enhances balance. Here’s how to do them safely:
- Lie on an exercise ball with your lower back supported and make sure your feet are planted firmly on the ground
- Start doing standard crunches by lifting your upper body off the ball
- Lower back down with control
Get an Effective Full Body Workout with Mountain Climbers:
Mountain Climbers target your arms, back, shoulders, core, and legs while giving you a cardiovascular workout. Here’s how to get the most benefit from them:
- Assume in a plank position, align your hands beneath your shoulders
- Raise one knee toward your chest
- Switch legs quickly as if you’re running
- Keep your core engaged and maintain a constant pace
Full Body Toning Workout: Exercise Ball Slams
Medicine Ball Slams are a powerful full-body exercise that works your core, hips, and glutes. All you need is your exercise ball, then you’re ready to start. Here’s how:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart
- Holding a medicine ball with both hands overhead
- Hinge at your hips and slam the medicine ball to the ground with a force
- Catch the ball on the bounce and repeat.
Get Strong Abs with Dead Bug
The dead bug exercise challenges your core stability and coordination while pushing your ab muscles to work their hardest. Here’s how to effectively do them:
- Lie on your back with your arms extended toward the ceiling and your knees bent at a 90 angle (make sure they’re stacked over your hips)
- Slowly reach your left leg out straight, while simultaneously dropping your right arm over your head
- Keep your arm and leg slightly off the ground as you reach
- Squeeze your glutes and keep your core engaged while you make sure that your lower back is pressed against the floor
- Bring your arm and leg back to the starting position and repeat on the other side
Prevent Back Pain and Build Abs with a Hollow Hold
A hollow hold is a powerful isometric exercise that activates your entire core while strengthening the muscles that support your spine.
- Lie on your back with your arms extended at your sides, with your palms facing inward and toes pointed
- Engage your core and press your back flat against the ground
- Lift your legs and upper body while holding your lower back flat against the floor.
- Holding your legs just above the ground
- Raise your arms overhead until they are only slightly off the floor
- With only the bottom ⅓ of your spine on the ground, hold the position as long as possible
Are Situps Effective?
Sit-ups have been a popular exercise for generations and many people think that they are the key to those coveted six-pack abs. However, while they can be effective at engaging your ab muscles they have been dismissed by many experts as a waste of time. But, why?
Sit-ups are effective for targeting your rectus abdominis muscle but they lack the dynamic movement that other benefits ab workouts can offer. No matter how many sit-ups you do, you won’t be working all of your core muscles, in particular, your transverse abdominis and obliques get almost no benefit from sit-ups.
Worse yet, sit-ups can be dangerous when not done properly. It is easy to strain your lower back as you put repetitive pressure on your intervertebral discs and lumbar spine. While a few sit-ups are dangerous, you can risk lower back injuries if this is your go-to ab workout for a long period of time.
Getting Started with the Best Core Exercises
A strong and functional core is vital for your overall fitness and long-term health. By including a variety of the very best core strengthening exercises in your workout routine, you can get on the path to building a strong and resilient core.
You must start with core muscle exercises that are right for your fitness level to prevent muscle fatigue. As your core strength improves you can progress to more advanced versions, more reps, and longer workouts. As you go, however, it is important to take it slow and remember that proper form and technique are fundamental to prevent injuries and maximise the benefits of core training.
As always, remember to listen to your body. If you are in pain due to sports injury, have underlying health concerns such as knee arthritis or rotator cuff tears, or are starting a workout routine for the first time, talk to a professional. If you are experiencing pain in the knees, you might want to speak with our knee pain doctor today.
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About the Author
Dr James Tan is a highly skilled orthopaedic surgeon who has more than 10 years of experience in sports surgery and exercise medicine. He is a member of the elite Asian Shoulder and Elbow Group and a founding member of the Singapore Shoulder and Elbow Surgery Society.
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