Core

Core

Core Workout: Everything You Need To Know & 3 Workout Routines

Man doing side planks as part of his core workout

If you've been looking for a decent core workout, we have you covered.

Developing a strong core is mandatory for advanced level performance.

Most people don't know that strengthening the muscles of their core will drastically reduce their chance of getting injured (study).

Therefore...

If you want to increase training longevity, improve your posture, and get nice looking abs in the process, then you are in the right place.

We will share with you the best core workouts and everything there is to know about core exercises.

Lately, the terms six-pack and core have been used interchangeably even though they are very different.

We are here to bring some clarity and debunk the myths around core training.

WHICH ARE THE MUSCLES OF THE CORE

There are eight muscles that are, without a doubt, part of the core.

Below we will slightly discuss each one in part.

  • Pelvic floor muscles
  • Transverse abdominis
  • Multifidus
  • Internal abdominal oblique
  • External abdominal oblique
  • Rectus abdominis
  • Erector spinae
  • Diaphragm

There are people who consider muscles such as the latissimus dorsi part of the core. While we do not agree with them, below we'll also mention those muscles for reference.

  • Pelvic floor muscles

These muscles have the function of holding the organs and structure of the lower abdomen in place.

They affect sexual, colorectal, and urological functions.

Truth be told, you don’t have to directly workout these muscles.

Even though they are part of the core you won’t even notice them being worked out.

  • Transverse abdominis

The transverse abdominis is a muscle group located underneath the obliques.

It wraps around the spine providing stability and protection and is the deepest layer of the abdominal muscles.

  • Multifidus

This muscle is located in the deepest layer of the back, along the spine. Its function is to provide stabilization and make each vertebra work more effectively.

  • Internal abdominal oblique

The internal oblique lays just under the external oblique and over the transverse abdominis muscle.

It has two major functions: assists the diaphragm in respiration and, in conjunction with the external oblique, assists with rotation and side bending.

  • External abdominal oblique

This muscle is the outermost and the biggest among the three that comprise the lateral anterior abdomen.

Its function is to help with side bending, rotating the body, as well as pulling the chest downwards. 

  • Rectus abdominis

Also known as the six-pack, the rectus abdominis is an important muscle that helps with posture.

Its function is to flex the lumbar spine, as well as assist in respiration. Needless to say, this is the most popular abdominal muscle.

But why do we say muscle and not muscles?

As you may or may not know, the rectus abdominis is a single muscle – not six, not eight, not ten.

That is why it is hard to only train the ‘lower abs’, and attempting to do so will rarely bring results. More on that in the misconceptions section below.

When people train ‘abs’ they mostly think about the rectus abdominis and at the very most the obliques.

  • Erector spinae

The erector spinae is a group of tendons and muscles that have the function of straightening and rotating the back.

Most compound movements, such as the pull-up, squat, and deadlift help with training this muscle group.

  • Diaphragm

As you can see, even the main respiratory muscle is part of the core.

There is no specific way to train this muscle in a workout session.

This just goes to show just how many muscles are part of the core and why it is important to train the entire core, not only the abs.

Other mentions

It is said that the following three muscles are part of the core as well:

  • Latissimus dorsi (or the lats)
  • Gluteus maximus (buttocks)
  • Trapezius

We personally feel like considering these muscles as part of the core is a bit of an over-exaggeration.

However, we’ve included them in this article just so that you can have your own take on this matter.

Now that we’ve glanced over the muscles that make up the core, it’s time to see what is the function of this area.

You will see how developing a stronger core will increase our performance, decrease lower back pain, and give us a boost in confidence.

WHAT FUNCTIONS DOES THE CORE HAVE

There are two reasons why a strong core is needed in sports:

  • Stability
  • Posture

Stability

Athlete doing crunches as part of his core training

Regardless of the exercise, the stronger our core is, the better our stability is.

Stability will allow us to perform movements using a full range of motion while at the same time maintaining good form throughout the movement.

This is especially important with compound movements.

You may find yourself in the position of doing weighted pull-ups and, even though you have the necessary strength to keep pulling, you will literally feel the core losing tension and your performance decreasing.

In handstands, the core has to be tight at all times to prevent injury and help with balance.

If you lack core tension then you’ll do what’s called a banana handstand and place a lot of unnecessary pressure on the lower back.

Posture

Man warming up his core for a workout to come

Another function of the core is to keep the body in as good a posture as possible, so that it can function at maximum capacity.

Issues such as the anterior pelvic tilt may arise as a byproduct of having tight hip flexors and a weak core, glutes, and hamstrings.

The anterior pelvic tilt leads to lower back pain due to an increased arch in the lower back.

Oftentimes people train the abs while ignoring the lower back. This leads to imbalances that can and will affect them further down the road.

What’s even worse is that they do it to get a neat, shredded six-pack but they don’t even do it right.

Let’s have a look at why is that.

CORE TRAINING COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS

As with a lot of things in the fitness industry, there are some common misconceptions that lead people astray when it comes to their ab training.

Being aware of these will save you a lot of time and effort that can be used in better ways:

  • A six-pack means a strong core
  • More abs training means better looking abs
  • Targeted fat loss

A six-pack means a strong core

Athlete at the beach flexing and showing off his core muscles

One of the greatest misconceptions surrounding this area is the fact that having a visible, perhaps even shredded, six-pack is a hallmark of a strong core.

That may or may not be true.

Having good looking abs does not necessarily mean that you have a strong core.

A better way to showcase that would be performing a full gymnastics core workout with perfect form.

What we mean to say is that everybody can have a six-pack with the correct diet and discipline.

Which leads us to the next point…

More abs training means better looking abs

Man doing push-ups on dumbbells, training his core stability in the process

Again, this may or may not be true.

The most important factor for having good looking washboard abs is not doing a core workout every single day or even doing it every other day.

That will help out...

However, there are two ways to achieve better looking abdominals faster:

  • Diet
  • Cardio

The right diet along with cardio exercise will help decrease your body fat percentage, leading to visible abs.

What you should be aware of however, is that there is no...

Targeted fat loss

Woman measuring her waistline

“All I need is to get rid of this belly fat.”

It doesn’t work like that.

When losing fat, you should be aware that it will not be targeted.

You cannot decrease the fat in your buttocks only, or only on your belly.

When you lose fat, it is a process throughout your entire body.

Regardless of whether you’re doing a core workout or a hundred push-ups.

Indeed, the muscles that are getting worked out get more toned, but the fat percentage drops throughout the whole body, not only in one region.

Best core exercises

Now that you know what to avoid, let's have a look over the best core exercises.

Below this section we have created a couple core workouts.

However, knowing which are the best exercises and how to do them with good form will help you in designing you own routine later on.

If you don’t want to design your own routine, we still encourage you to quickly glance over this section as it will provide information on how to correctly perform each exercise.

Isometric core exercises

One of the best ways to get your strength to the next level is through using isometric exercises.

You should incorporate these into your own core routine for increased strength and stability.

Exercises in which your muscles aren’t changing in length, even though fully tensed, are regarded as isometric exercises.

Let's have a look at our list of the best isometric core exercises.

Plank

We’ve all heard of this exercise.

The plank helps in building your core’s strength, stability and endurance.

To do it get into a push-up position but with your forearms on the floor. Focus on tensing the glutes and straightening the lower back for increased difficulty.

If you are a total beginner start with a push-up plank.

However, if you are strong enough, start with a forearm plank (a.k.a. elbow plank).

Form checklist:

  1. Keep a straight line from your heels to the crown of your head.
  2. Do not look up or ahead. Look at the floor.
  3. Squeeze your glutes and legs to straighten the lower back and add more tension.

Levels of intensity:

  • Level 1: Push-up plank
  • Level 2: Forearm plank
  • Level 3: Forearm plank with protracted scapula (shoulder blades)
  • Level 4: Extended forearm plank
  • Level 5: Extended push-up plank

Protracting the scapula in a plank will not only work the core muscles but also the serratus anterior muscle.

Once you can hold the plank for 60 seconds at any level, we recommend you to start training the next level.

This way you will keep increasing the demand on your core, as well as get some variety in your training.

Variations:

  • Side plank - more emphasis on obliques
  • Reverse plank - more emphasis on the lower back muscles
  • One legged plank - more emphasis on the mid to oblique side

There are lots of plank variations, and people get caught up in the fever of mixing things up too much. Or they start adding crazy variations.

The best thing anyone can do is stick with the basics and keep exercising simple.

There is no need for a one-leg, one-arm, elevated reverse side plank.

Onward.

Hollow body hold

If we could only do two core exercises for the rest of our lives, one of them would be the hollow body hold.

(the other one would be lower back focused)

This exercise mimics the hollow body position needed in most calisthenics skills, so there is a lot of transferability to other exercises.

Mastering the hollow body hold will ensure that your core gets the workout needed to support advanced workout routines.

Form checklist:

  1. Start by laying down on your back and create a double chin, by tucking your chin in.
  2. Extend your arms over your head, then lift your shoulder blades off the ground.
  3. At this point your lower back should be in full contact with the ground.
  4. Squeeze your legs together and extend them in front of your body.

Levels of intensity:

There are two ways to increase or decrease intensity:

  1. Arms
  2. Legs

You can decrease the intensity by keeping your arms by your side, and increase it by extending the arms over your head.

Once you lift your legs, the closer your heels are to the ground, the more difficult the exercise. Lower down as far as you can, striving to lower them more each workout session.

Variations:

  • Side hollow body hold

The side hollow body hold is a great way to emphasize the obliques. However, you need to have a strong regular HBH before you can optimally work this variation.

To do it lay on one side, then lift your legs and your torso by squeezing the oblique muscles. You can use one finger for balance.

Once you reach 60 seconds hold of the full HBH, you can add a bit of weight on your legs and arms.

That should increase the intensity by quite a lot.

L-sit

If you want to fire up your abs and hip flexors, the L-sit is going to be a great addition to your core workout routine.

L-sits also work the depression strength of your scapula and the triceps.

Once you master this exercise, you will be able to take it to handstand transitions or develop it into a V-sit.

Form checklist:

  1. Lock out your elbows and turn your elbow pits to face forward.
  2. Pull your shoulder blades back (retraction) and down (depression).
  3. Keep your chest up.

If you don't know how to retract and depress your shoulder blades, use these cues:

For retraction imagine that you are pinching your shoulder blades together.

For depression start by shrugging the shoulders. That is called shoulder elevation.

Now that your shoulders are elevated, do the opposite movement and push them down as deep as you can. That is shoulder depression.

Levels of intensity:

  • Level 1: Tuck L-sit
  • Level 2: One leg L-sit
  • Level 3: Full L-sit

There are more progressions after these.

However, for the purpose of this article, this is more than enough.

The progressions that follow are gymnastics specific, helping with transitions from an L-sit to handstand or moving into the V-sit to manna progression.

Therefore, for the sole purpose of this core workout article, the full L-sit is the final and ideal level.

Variations:

There are no variations of the L-sit that can emphasize a certain muscle group.

There is a slight difference if you hold the position on parallettes, parallel bars, dumbbells, etc., versus holding it on the floor.

The floor version is just a bit harder, because it will require more scapular depression strength to lift your body off the ground.

Superman hold

One last exercise we want to add to this section is the superman hold.

This exercise focuses on the back area of the core.​​

To start this exercise, lie on your belly on the floor or a yoga mat. Raise your legs, chest, and arms off the floor and hold that contraction.

Form checklist:

  1. Squeeze your glutes, quads and lower back.
  2. Don’t lose tension in any of the mentioned areas.

Levels of intensity:

To make the exercise easier bend your arms at the elbow and hold the position that way, instead of keeping your arms fully extended.

Variations:

There are no variations for this exercise.

However, working with the basic variation will bring a lot of good results and you really don’t need more than that one variation.

Dynamic core exercises

There are lots of options when it comes to core exercises.

Even though we’ve presented just four exercises, adding the variations together will lead to seven or eight that you can choose from.

With dynamic exercises you will be able to incorporate some range of motion into your core workout routine.

Hanging raises

Depending on your level you can start with hanging knee raises or even hanging leg raises.

The latter is a harder progression but it will engage the core even more.

Form checklist:

  1. Maintain a posterior pelvic tilt to engage and keep the abs tensed at all times.
  2. Control the movement to prevent swinging.
  3. Do not lean back. Only your legs will be moving.

Levels of intensity:

  • Level 1: Knee raises with back support
  • Level 2: Knee raises
  • Level 3: Leg raises with back support
  • Level 4: Leg raises
  • Level 5: Toes to bar

If you are a beginner, we recommend having your back against a surface to prevent swinging. It can be a pole, stall bars, or even a spotter holding you.

With time, however, we recommend you to move away from the support and slowly work your way towards the harder progression.

Variations:

  • Side knee raises
  • Around the world (toes to bar, in a circle, from your left to your right and back)
  • Floor leg raises
  • Parallel bars variation

Knee and leg raises can be done on the floor, hanging, or on the parallel bars.

In our experience, the one that works best is the hanging variation, as it engages the muscles more to control the movement and prevent swinging.

Gymnast abs

For us, this exercise is one of the best out there as it targets the core muscles really well; especially the rectus abdominis.

If you suffer from anterior pelvic tilt (APT), we strongly advise you to add this exercise to your core workout.

The APT affects those who have weak hamstrings, glutes, and abs, while having tight hip flexors.

Exercises like the leg raises will also work the hip flexors, tightening them even more.

What you'd want to do instead is stretch the hip flexors while strengthening the abs. And here is where this exercise comes as a great addition.

Form checklist:

  1. Get on parallel bars and completely lock out your elbows.
  2. Lift your tailbone towards the ceiling by tilting the pelvis and crunching the abs.
  3. Do not pull your legs forward. Use only the abs to lift your body.

Levels of intensity:

There are no progressions for this exercise so we cannot discuss intensity.

The only way you could increase the demands of the parallel bar crunch would be to use additional weight such as a weighted vest.

Variations:

  1. Parallel bar twists

Instead of lifting straight up and going down, lift and twist your body to one side, then the other.

Doing gymnast abs in this manner will focus most of the effort on the obliques rather than the rectus abdominis.

Reverse hyperextensions

The reverse hyperextension will make or break your front lever, planche, and back lever progress.

That sentence is not an over exaggeration.

What all the above exercises have in common, is the need for hip extension strength.

Unfortunately, our bodies do not naturally have the needed amount of hip strength to perform those movements. And what it results in is violent shaking once you extend your legs.

To fix this start incorporating reverse hyperextensions into your core routine.

Form checklist:

  1. Lie on your stomach on an elevated surface, with your hips on the edge of the surface.
  2. Posteriorly tilt your pelvis to flatten out the lower back.
  3. During the movement extend only at the hips. Do not arch the lower back at any point.

Arching the lower back to add more range of motion is actually your body compensating for the lack of hip extension strength.

Keep your practice honest and only work within your limits.

Levels of intensity:

  • Level 1: Tuck position to full extension
  • Level 2: Full extension position to full extension position

We want to better explain this bit.

Regardless of whether you do reverse hyperextensions with your legs tucked, straddled, or fully extended, you will choose one of the two levels.

Example:

Let's imagine you have chosen the straddle hyperextension.

Level 1: you start with you legs tucked, and when you extend the hips you lift and straddle the legs.

Level 2: you start with you legs extended in a straddle, and when you extend the hips you lift the already straddled legs up.

Variations:

  • Tuck reverse hyperextensions
  • Straddle reverse hyperextensions
  • Full reverse hyperextensions (legs together, fully extended)

The variation that you’re going to choose depends on your goals.

If you’re working on say a straddle front lever, then doing the straddle reverse hyperextensions will help out a lot.

If you don’t have any bodyweight strength exercises that you’re working towards, you can choose whichever variation fits you best.

The tuck is the easiest one, while the full reverse hyperextension is the most difficult.

Plank side to side

If you are tired of the isometric version of the plank, you can make it more appealing using this dynamic version.

Get in the plank position then rock your body from side to side.

It’s an overall great core exercise as it focuses on multiple ranges of motion, increasing the strength in each area.

Form checklist:

  1. Keep a straight line from your heels to the crown of your head.
  2. Do not look up or ahead. Look at the floor.
  3. Squeeze your glutes and legs to straighten the lower back and add more tension.
  4. Start moving your hips from one side to the other.

Levels of intensity:

To make the exercise more intense we recommend you to use a weighted vest, or do it slower.

Variations:

There are no variations to this exercise, because it is on and of itself a variation of the plank.

Core workout routine

Time to put together a couple of core workout routines.

For each exercise choose the intensity that fits you best and strive to progress every single workout.

If they are too easy, feel free to add more time, choose a harder variation, or shorten the breaks.

You will see exercises written as "3 x (15-30s) L-sit" or any other exercise.

This is read as three sets of 15 seconds, building up to 30 seconds of L-sit.

Therefore, you will be doing one set of 15 to 30 seconds of L-sit, take a 30-60 seconds rest break, then start the second set.

Isometric core workout

In this core routine you'll only be doing isometric exercises.

Note that this is just a sample routine which can be changed to your liking.

Programming:

  • 3 x (15-30s) L-Sit
  • 3 x (30-60s) Plank
  • 3 x (30-60s) Hollow body hold
  • 3 x (30-60s) Side plank, each side
  • 3 x (30-60s) Superman hold 
  • Rest: 30-60 seconds after each set
  • Frequency: 1-2 times a week

You can change the workout from a sets based workout, to a cycles based workout.

So instead of doing three sets of L-sit, then three sets of plank, and so on...

You will be doing a set of L-sit, then a set of plank, then one of hollow body hold, and so on until you finish all exercises.

That counts as a cycle. Do three to four cycles.

When doing cycles training, you will no longer take a break between each exercise. You cycle through all exercises without a break (or as little a break as possible), and you rest between cycles for 1-2 minutes.

Dynamic core workout

How about we add some range of motion to our workouts?

Just like with the isometric routine, this one can be made into a cycle.

  • 3 x (8-12) Hanging knee raises
  • 3 x (8-12) Plank side to side, each side
  • 3 x (8-12) Gymnastics abs
  • 3 x (8-12) Reverse hyperextensions
  • 3 x (6-10) Side knee raises, each side
  • Rest: 30-60 seconds after each set
  • Frequency: 1-2 times a week

As you can see, the exercises presented above can easily be combined into a routine.

What you may want to have in mind is the balance aspect of a workout.

Even though the core muscles are working together, there are some muscles that work more than others on every exercise.

Strive to add at least one oblique (side) exercise and a lower back exercise, instead of only focusing on the 6-pack.

Isometric & dynamic core workout

Let's see how we could mix both dynamic and isometric exercises in a routine.

And, as mentioned before, this routine can be made into a cycles workout, instead of doing sets.

  • 3 x (8-12) Hanging knee raises
  • 3 x (30-60s) Superman hold
  • 3 x (30-60s) Hollow body hold
  • 3 x (8-12) Plank side to side, each side
  • 3 x (6-10) Side knee raises, each side
  • 3 x (8-12) Reverse hyperextensions
  • Rest: 30-60 seconds after each set
  • Frequency: 1-2 times a week

You may notice that we are trying to keep a balanced routine.

There are two exercises that mainly focus on the front part, two for the back, and two for the sides.

As long as you have this balance in mind, you can play around adding whatever exercises you want and the routine will be good.

Conclusion

In this article we have debunked some of the most common misconceptions regarding core training, pointed out the difference between core and abs, and also glanced over the muscles that comprise the core.

Now you have a base of the best exercises you can implement in your core workout routine, as well as a couple pre-made workouts.

Having a strong core requires effort but it’s truly a goal we should all strive to achieve.

Over to you.

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