You know that a strong and stable core is a must for rock-solid fitness (and an equally rock-solid physique), but let’s face it: Hitting the mat for near-endless crunches, planks, and twists probably isn’t the most exciting part of your workout.
If you hate training abs, make sure to incorporate some of the following compound exercises—all of which demand a lot from your core while hammering the other muscle groups you love to work on—into your regular routine to reap very-real core benefits without the usual snooze-fest mat moves.
1. Bulgarian Split Squat
Bulgarian split squats create an unstable position by, ahem, splitting your legs into what’s known as a split stance. As a result, this grueling lower-body move also hits your core. “The unstable position forces your core to engage to maintain balance,” explains trainer and nutrition coach Rob Wagener, C.P.T., founder of Fizzness Shizzness.
When performing a Bulgarian split squat, position your rear leg far enough back that your knees both create 90-degree angles when you lower down, Wagener advises. With sound form, you’ll not only hit the major muscle groups in your legs, but fire up core muscles such as the obliques, rectus abdominis, and transverse abdominis, too.
2. Clean and Press
The clean and press is one of the best power moves you can do to light up your midsection (while also working pretty much your entire body). “This explosive movement requires solid core strength for both the clean (lifting the weight to your shoulders) and the press (pushing it overhead),” says Wagener.
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In particular, the clean and press targets the muscles of the lower back and the rectus abdominis. Just keep in mind that this is an advanced move, so be sure to get your form right before adding heavy weights, Wagener urges.
The deadlift is one of the most popular strength moves in the gym—and justly so considering it engages your entire posterior chain (the muscles all along the back side of your body), notes personal trainer and dietitian Chrissy Arsenault, R.D.N., C.P.T., of Athletic Muscle. The muscles of your lower back are both part of your core and posterior chain, plus the deadlift also engages all other angles of the core, including the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and obliques, she says.
In fact, keeping your core engaged throughout the whole lift (and weight release, as well) is crucial for protecting your back, Wagener adds.
4. Farmer’s Carry
The farmer’s carry involves carrying a heavy weight on each side (often dumbbells or kettlebells) and walking for a certain distance or time with solid posture. As simple as it sounds, this basic movement asks a lot of your core. “Carrying a heavy weight on both sides forces your core to work to keep you upright and balanced,” explains Wagener.
The areas of the core that get the most attention: the obliques, rectus abdominis, and transverse abdominis. When performing farmer’s carries, choose weights that challenge you but allow you to walk with good form, notes Wagener.
5. Front Rack Squat
If you don’t switch up your squats much, this variation will turn up the heat for your midsection while still challenging your lower body. Simply repositioning your load from the backs of your shoulders to the front makes a world of difference. “Holding the weight in front of you forces your core to work harder to keep you upright,” explains Wagener.
You’ll feel front squats most in the muscles of your lower back and in the rectus abdominis. For best results, maintain your usual squat form and keep your elbows positioned up out in front of you, Wagener notes.
6. Kettlebell Swing
The kettlebell swing is a triple threat of cardio, core, and all-over strength. “The swinging motion demands strong core stabilization throughout both the lift and the descent,” says Wagener. Though all of your core is involved in this dynamic move, your lower back and rectus abdominis work the hardest.
When performing swings, make sure your power comes from your hips, not your arms, he notes. A strong lower body and core ensures strong swings.
7. Overhead Press
Any time you press weight up overhead, your core works to stabilize your spine and lower body, which is why this staple shoulder move is also a sneaky abs exercise, assuming you do it with sound form, says Wagener.
To use your core properly and avoid injury, perform overhead presses with your knees slightly bent and your core engaged, he says. Avoid arching your back.
8. Renegade Row
Plain ol’ planks are great for targeting your core—and by adding a row into the movement, you double up on strength and core benefits. “Pulling a dumbbell off the floor while maintaining a solid plank position requires major core stabilization,” says Wagener. In addition to strengthening your back and arms, this move challenges your core’s anti-rotation ability, hitting the obliques, rectus abdominis, and transverse abdominis.
When performing a renegade row, maintain a straight line from head to toe, Wagener says. If you can’t keep your hips square to the floor throughout the movement, grab lighter weights.
This bodyweight move is notoriously challenging—and though it’s famous for destroying your back and arms, it gets your core in on the action, too. After all, you need to keep your body straight and controlled in order to do it properly, which means your core (especially your lower back and transverse abdominis muscles) needs to be engaged, says Wagener. Remember, no swinging!
10. Turkish Get-up
The Turkish get-up is a technical move, but when properly performed, it’s great for strength, core stability, and even endurance. In a get-up, “you are essentially moving from lying down to standing up while holding a weight overhead,” explains Wagener. “Throughout that whole process, your core works overtime to stabilize the weight.”
The core areas targeted during a Turkish Get-Up include the obliques, rectus abdominis, and transverse abdominis. Choose a manageable weight to start since this is a complex one, Wagener recommends.