While the appearance of lean abs is appealing to the eye, the strength and functionality of the core is even more important. Strengthening your core does not mean that you just train your abdominals to get them to look pretty. The “core” means everything in the center of your body, such as the abdominals, obliques, and the lower back. Having a strong core can improve your posture, protect you from back pain and help you lift, push and pull things more easily. But because of the mostly sedentary lifestyle we live, sitting at a desk for work, in our cars and watching TV, our core muscles are not as strong as they should be.
Over time, weak core muscles can lead to back pain, spinal injury, bad posture and difficulty doing simple movements like walking, bending over, lifting or carrying things.
You can strengthen each muscle group separately, but ultimately, the best and most functional way to strengthen your core is to do exercises that work everything in unison—all your body parts move at the same time. Here are seven exercises that will tone and strengthen your midsection to give you killer-looking abs as well.
7 exercises for a strong core
Equipment: A mat, a stability ball and a three- to five-pound dumbbell.
Warm-up: March in place or walk briskly for about three minutes.
Repetitions: Begin with two sets of each exercise, working up to three sets as your abs get stronger. Perform each for the suggested reps or time (or less if you can’t hold good form). You should be able to do two sets of three moves in about six minutes (about eight to 10 minutes including warm-up).
Works: Upper abdominals
A. Lie face up with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Point your toes up to provide extra back support. Place both hands under your head with the index fingers and thumbs of each hand touching. (Don’t interlock your fingers or pull on your head, which can result in strained neck muscles; the effort should come from your abs, not your arms). Throughout this exercise, keep your lower back pressed into the floor and avoid bouncing or jerking movements.
B. Exhale as you curl your upper body toward your thighs about 30 degrees.
C. Pause briefly, then inhale as you slowly lower yourself. Do two sets of 15 reps each.
Works: Obliques (the diagonal muscles that run along the sides of your waist)
A. Lie face up with your knees bent and heels on the floor. Place your left ankle across your right knee and your left hand, palm up, on the floor perpendicular to your body. Place your right palm behind your head to provide neck support.
B. Exhale as you raise your upper body, bringing your right shoulder toward your left knee.
C. Pause briefly, then inhale as you slowly lower your upper body to the mat. Your right hand should not pull your head forward, but simply support it. Switch sides. Do two sets of 15 reps (includes both sides).
Works: lower and some upper abdominals
A. Lie face up on a mat or carpet with your knees bent. Raise one leg at a time, straightening each leg as much as you can, so that the soles of your feet face the ceiling. Raise your head from the floor, placing your palms behind your head to provide support for your neck.
B. As you exhale, contract your abs to pull your legs about 30 degrees toward your head. Remember: Use your abs, not your leg muscles, when doing this exercise.
C. Inhale as you relax your abs to slowly return your legs to their original position. Do two sets of 15 reps.
Ball side lying oblique crunch
A. Place your right hip on the stability ball, ensuring your hips are square (belly button facing forward). Your top (left) leg goes back and the front (right) leg is forward for balance, hands behind your head. Imagine a wall is in front of you and behind you to avoid any twisting of the torso.
B. Bending at the waist (bring your lower rib to the top of your pelvis), lower your body toward the ground then pause.
C. Return to starting position and repeat for 10-12 repetitions each side to complete one set.
Tip: To increase the intensity, raise your arms above your head.
Mountain climber with ball
Works: core, shoulders
A. Place your forearms on the ball, feet apart and legs straight. Keep your spine straight from the top of your head to your tailbone and pull your belly button in toward your spine.
B. Lift your left foot and bring your knee toward your chest.
C. Return the left leg to starting position and repeat with the right leg.
Plank press ups
Works: core, arms and shoulders
A. Get in a kneeling push-up position with wrists directly under shoulders. Keep your back flat so that a straight line can be drawn from the top of your head to your tailbone. Pull your belly button in toward your spine.
B. Bend the left arm to bring the forearm on the mat. Then follow with the right arm.
C. Straighten the left arm then right arm to return to starting push-up position. One repetition is complete.
D. Repeat, this time beginning with the right forearm. Keep alternating arms until you have completed 10-12 repetitions.
Intermediate: Try in a full push-up position with feet shoulder width apart.