Your core—which includes the torso muscles between your chest and hips, like your abdominals and obliques—is super important for just about everything you do throughout the day, from standing up straight to working out. Sure, we all want the sleek midsection that comes with a strong core, but these muscles are also key for maintaining mobility and avoiding injury.
“All of these muscles work together as one unit to keep the pelvis and posture in alignment,” says Erica Suter, C.S.C.S. When your core isn’t strong, your lower back compensates, often leaving you with slouchy posture, lower back pain, and at risk for poor form when strength-training.
Almost all of the exercises you do—from squats, to pullups, to pushups—work the core to some extent, explains Suter. So strengthening your core not only improves your workouts and posture, but helps you get through tons of functional activities you do every day. “A lot of clients tell me a stronger core has helped them tremendously in daily living with things like lifting heavy grocery bags or carrying their kids,” she says.
That said, some moves target and fire up the core more effectively than others—so we asked two top trainers to share their go-to MVP abs moves. Prepare to feel the burn, big time.
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1. Resisted Dead Bug
If you can’t do conventional crunches because of lower-back pain, this move hits your lower abs and helps to stabilize your lower (lumbar) spine. Suter loves this move because it’s safe for most exercisers.
Try It: Attach a rope handle attachment to a cable machine or loop a resistance band around a squat rack hook. Lie on your back in front of the machine with your legs extended as straight up above your hips as possible. Hold the rope or resistance band overhead, with your arms extended straight up above your head, framing your ears. Crunch up just enough to lift your shoulder blades off the ground, keeping your chin tucked to maintain tension throughout your core. Pull the band or cable directly toward your chest. Keeping tension in your core, lower your legs until they hover just above the ground. Then raise your legs back up to starting position. Repeat for two to three sets of 10 to 15 reps.
Make the move easier by skipping the resistance band or cable machine and simply crunching up. Make it harder by moving further away from the rack or upping the resistance on the cable machine.
2. Ab Walkout
This move challenges all of the muscles that keep your midsection stable, from your rectus abdominus (those six-pack muscles) to your transverse abdominus (muscles along the front and side of your torso, beneath your obliques), to your obliques themselves, says Suter. Since this exercise trains you to avoid arching or over-extending your lower back, it can help protect you from trouble in that area.
“There’s also an upper body strength component the farther you roll out,” says Suter. Expect to feel the burn in your shoulders and triceps, too.
Try It: Kneel down on your knees and contract your glutes (butt muscles) as hard as you can. Exhale and slowly walk your hands out one-by-one in front of you, keeping your abs contracted and head and hips in a straight line. Walk your hands out as far as you can while still keeping your core fully engaged—if you feel your lower-back sagging or experience any discomfort there, you’ve gone too far! The farther out you walk your hands and the closer your body is to the ground, the harder the exercise. Repeat for three to five sets of 10 to 15 reps.
To make this move harder, use an ab wheel. To kick up the intensity even further, lift your knees and start the exercise in plank position—or elevate your feet on a bench.
3. Hardstyle Plank
Planks teach your spine and hips to work in unison, which is super important for powering through pretty much every sport, says Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S. This level-up on your basic plank is a great way to create what Somerset calls “controlled tension” throughout your hips and core.
Try It: Start on the ground on all fours. Lower your elbows to the ground so they’re in line with your shoulders. Extend your legs, planting the balls of your feet firmly on the ground. Keeping your hips in line with your shoulders, contract your quad muscles (fronts of your thighs) and glutes, and lengthen through your heels. Press your shoulders away from your ears, lengthening your neck. Think of pushing the floor away from you with your forearms and brace your core like you’re about to be punched in the gut. “Breathe with the force of the big bad wolf trying to blow over the little piggies’ house,” Somerset advises. The goal is to generate tension in your core—the more tension you create, the harder it’ll be to hold the position—so squeeze as hard as you can! Hold for about 20 seconds and repeat two to four times.
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4. Bird Dog
This move helps you learn to use your core to balance movement in your arms and legs without putting stress on your low back or neck. “Bird dogs help you to control movement from the hips and shoulders while promoting balance and stability throughout the core,” says Somerset.
Try It: Get onto your hands and knees, with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Keeping your back flat and core engaged, extend your right arm out directly in front of your right shoulder and your left (opposite) leg out directly behind your hip. (Imagine reaching your hand and foot out toward the walls in front of you and behind you, instead of lifting up toward the ceiling.) Then carefully bring your right elbow and your left knee to meet beneath your midline. (Slow down if you’re wobbling.) Extend your arm and leg out again. Repeat the movement eight to 10 times, then switch to the other side. Repeat for two to four sets per side.
5. Kneeling Pallof Press And Raise
This move helps you learn to control rotation through your spine by firing up your obliques. Strong side abs, here you come.
Try It: Kneel down onto a padded surface (a mat, rolled up towel, or foam roller will do the trick) perpendicular to a cable machine. Grab the cable handle with both hands and extend your arms out in front of you at shoulder height. Engage your core. Keeping your arms straight—but not locked—pull the cable straight up over your head until your arms frame your ears. With control, lower back to the starting position. Pull the cable in toward your chest, keeping your core tight, shoulders back and down away from your ears, and your elbows wide. Then extend your arms back to the starting position. (Your ribs and pelvis shouldn’t budge as your arms move.) Repeat for two to four sets of eight to 10 reps on each side.
To make the exercise harder, increase the weight on the cable machine.
6. Rotating Shoulder Press
Your abs connect your trunk—which, by extension, includes your shoulders—to your hips. “The most effective core exercises engage all of the muscles that connect those parts via rotational movements,” says Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., host of the All About Fitness Podcast and adjunct professor of exercise science at San Diego State University. With this reach-and-rotate exercise, you’ll strengthen and lengthen these muscles, making you more resilient against injury, he says.
Try It: Stand holding two dumbbells, with your feet slightly wider than your hips. Bring the dumbbells to rest at shoulder height. Rotate your chest to the left and press the left dumbbell until your arm is extended directly up above your shoulder, keeping your spine long, chest high, and core activated. (The rotation should come from your hips—not your spine—so allow them to rotate as you press the weight.) Rotate your chest back to center as you lower the left dumbbell back to shoulder height. Repeat for two to four sets of 10 to 12 reps per side.
As the exercise becomes easier, increase the weight of your dumbbells until you can only perform eight to 10 reps per side.
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