Whether you just started exercising or have been exercising for years, what is the physique goal we all aim for? For women, it is probably a tight, toned core. For men, they want a chiseled six-pack that you can see under a shirt. A well-defined core can set you apart from your everyday gym-goer. Not only does having a six-pack look good, but a strong core can translate to much stronger lifts and make every other aspect of your day easier. If you want to know how much you use your core in everyday life, get them nice and sore one time. We also suggest you read the best pre-workout ingredients for strength and power.
In this article, we will cover:
- The anatomy and function of your abs and core.
- The benefits of correct ab training.
- How to work abs into your routine and build your own workout.
- The best exercises for core strength and definition.
Anatomy And Function Of The Core
When you think of abdominal muscles, the first picture that comes to mind is probably a six-pack. The abdominal muscles that you see are only a small part of what makes up your entire core. Physiopedia states, “The core is the group of trunk and hip muscles that surround the spine, abdominal viscera, and hip.” This means that everything from the bottom of your chest, all the way to your pelvis, and around your spine are all part of the abdominal muscles.
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) gives an easy chart to explain the function of each muscle in the core:
- Trunk Flexion (bend forward): Rectus Abdominis (the six pack)
- Trunk Extension (stand up straight from bent over): Erector Spinae (muscles around your spine that extend the back)
- Trunk Rotation (twisting left and right): internal and external Obliques (think of the ab muscles that look like gills)
- Lateral Trunk Flexion (bending to the side): Obliques and one side of both Erector Spinae and Rectus Abdominis
- Compression of the abdomen (drawing your stomach in towards your spine): Transverse Abdominis
- Spinal Stability (hold your spine still during movement): Multifidi (also a muscle on either side of the spine)
The Benefits of Abdominal Training
Now that you see how abdominal muscles perform many actions, let’s look at how training each of these ranges of motion can be beneficial for you.
The first, and biggest benefit, of strengthening your abs is the boost in spinal stability. Keeping your spine stable is essential for all major lifts, but especially the deadlift and barbell back squat. The ability to keep your core braced while under heavy loads can mean the difference between putting up a new one rep max or hurting yourself.
The second benefit is better posture. The abdominal muscles play a vital role in maintaining the alignment of your hips and spine. What happens if you can keep the spine in a better position? You guessed it! Reducing, or even eliminating lower back pain. The Premier Spine Institute says, “Abdominal muscles maintain proper spine curvature and a neutral pelvic tilt, which is important for preventing back pain.” So, if the chiropractor hasn’t been helping your back, give core strengthening a go.
The third benefit is improving your overall functionality. As I said before, everything you do involves your core. Whether that be carrying groceries in one arm, bending down to pick up your child, or even just going for a walk, you use your abs. Strengthening your abs will help you perform all these activities more easily and will reduce your chance of straining or injuring yourself.
The fourth benefit is balance. Balance is “the ability to control the position of your body whether stationary or while moving” (Doriston, 2015). Having a better balance drastically reduces your risk of falls, reduces your rick of injuring yourself, and going back to the third benefit, makes daily activities easier to perform. This is especially beneficial for anyone older in age. Balance is also crucial for anyone participating in sports. Having better balance means you are more agile, less prone to injury, and can increase performance quicker.
How to Implement Abdominal Training
The abs are like the calf muscles in the sense that they are the most worked muscles in the body. Due to this, their resiliency is incredible. This makes it easy to perform abdominal training 3-4 times per week and still be able to recover. There are a couple of different options when it comes to implementing abs into your training. My favorite option is to add in an abdominal circuit at the end of your primary workout 3 or 4 times a week. This would consist of 3 or 4 exercises that target each range of motion mentioned earlier, done back-to-back. You should perform these exercises anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute. If you only want to do abs once or twice a week, consider adding more volume and giving them their own day.
The Best Ab Exercises for Strength and Definition
The Ab Rollout
This is one of the best ab strengthening exercises that you can do. This is because the exercise trains “anti-extension” as physical therapist Jeff Cavalier says. To perform this exercise, load some plates onto a barbell or grab an ab rollout tool. Place your hands about shoulder width apart and sit on your knees. You should be slightly leaning forward. If you have knee issues, you can cushion with a yoga mat or something similar.
The most important part of this exercise is the position of your hips and lower back. Most people performing this exercise lead with their hips, meaning they don’t let their abs do the work. You should round your lower back slightly towards the ceiling and move the barbell and your hips at the same time. If done correctly, you should feel an exceptional contraction throughout your core. Do not roll out so far that your lower back caves in. If this happens, you should shorten the distance you go out. Over time you will build the strength to go out farther. You shouldn’t go out so far that you start feeling the exercise in your lats though. At this point, add heavier weight onto the barbell for increased intensity.
The plank is an awesome exercise for building isometric strength. This means keeping your core tight and bracing your spine. The stronger you can get your plank, the more you will see other exercises like the deadlift and squat improve. To perform this exercise, start in a pushup position, and then come down onto your forearms. That’s it! Brace your core hard to keep your spine straight and squeeze your glutes. This exercise is not about moving weight, but holding your body in this position for as long as you can. Make sure you breathe! Once you can comfortably hold the plank for a minute or longer, consider having a spotter add a plate onto your back to increase the intensity.
The Banana (hollow hold)
This is another great isometric move that will increase the strength and endurance of the Transverse Abdominis (bracing muscles). I call this move the banana because your body position looks like you laid a banana on the ground horizontally. This move is also very scalable as you are working on building your core strength.
To perform this exercise, lay flat on the ground with your arms extended overhead and legs straight out. Using your abs, pick your shoulders off the ground and bring your knees to your chest. Extend your legs out again so they are off the ground at about forty-five degrees. Using your core, push your lower back into the ground and hold. If that is too easy, lower your legs closer to the floor. Do not let your lower back come off the floor.
Hanging Leg / Knee Raise Variations
This exercise is awesome for bringing out the definition and strength in the lower abdomen while also being a great beginner exercise for more advanced moves, such as the L Sit if you are trying to get into calisthenics. This exercise increases grip strength as well.
To perform this exercise, hold onto a pull-up bar and bring yourself off the ground. Contract your lower abdomen to bring your knees as close to your chest as you can. Slowly let them back down until your legs are straight. Do not swing to bring your legs up. Start each rep only if you are still as this will bring out the best results. If you are more advanced, perform this exercise the same way, except bring your toes up to your hands while keeping your legs straight. This exercise also scales well. Bringing your toes up is one way to scale, but you can also add a dumbbell between your feet for added intensity.
This exercise even allows you to target your obliques. When your knees are up to your chest, perform a windshield wiper motion with your knees. You should feel a stretch and then a contraction in your obliques.
One-handed Farmer’s Carry
This exercise is good for training anti-flexion with a little anti-rotation. Simply grab a dumbbell you can hold for around a minute and walk with it by your side. Keep your core braced to not allow the dumbbell to pull you over to one side. This exercise is good for helping gain deadlift strength.
Traditional Farmer’s Walk
Farmer’s Walk is great for increasing core stability. This exercise makes you keep your core braced under load which will translate into increased performance on other lifts. Perform this exactly like the one-arm farmer’s carry, except with two dumbbells. You can also do this with a trap bar or a heavy medicine ball.
This is an excellent move to help train your core in an unstable position. This is one of those moves that can help with lower back pain if you do it often enough. To perform this exercise, lay flat on your back with your arms over your head and bring your knees up to a ninety-degree angle. Straighten out one leg and reach the opposite arm behind you while using your core to push your lower back into the ground. Come back to the starting position and do the opposite side. If your lower back starts to come off the ground, then keep your legs a little farther off the ground. To make this move more advanced, simply add a light dumbbell in each hand.
The Stability Ball Crunch
The reason I do not put regular crunches or sit-ups on this list is because those tend to cause back and neck issues and you still don’t get an optimal contraction in your core. Using a stability ball during this exercise takes out almost all the stress on your lower back and isolates the Rectus Abdominis. To perform this exercise, lay on a stability ball with the ball directly under your lower back. Your knees should make a ninety-degree angle with your feet on the floor. Then, perform a simple crunch. To make this exercise more advanced, you can hold either a dumbbell or a plate against your chest.
Your abdominal muscles contribute to way more than just looks. A well-trained core can give you better spinal stability, posture, balance, functionality, and even less lower back pain. To optimally train your core, you should be performing the moves above to ensure you are training each range of motion that your abdominals take your body through. You can implement abdominal exercises at the end of a workout or you can give them their own day. Frequency is key with abs. Since they are so resilient, training them more often will lead to better results. You should now have the knowledge to not only build a strong core but a good-looking one as well!
- Hampton, Lucinda. “Core Muscles.” Physiopedia, 2022, www.physio-pedia.com/Core_Muscles.
- American Council on Exercise. “Core Anatomy: Muscles of the Core.” Www.acefitness.org, www.acefitness.org/fitness-certifications/ace-answers/exam-preparation-blog/3562/core-anatomy-muscles-of-the-core/.
- Premier Spine Institute. “Building a Strong Core Is Your Best Defense against Back Pain: Bonaventure Ngu, MD: Orthopaedic Spine Surgeon.” Www.premierspineinstitute.com, www.premierspineinstitute.com/blog/building-a-strong-core-is-your-best-defense-against-back-pain.
- Doriston, Marlie. “The Importance of Balance Training.” Www.bodyinbalancerehab.com, 12 Feb. 2015, www.bodyinbalancerehab.com/blog/balancetraining~844.html#:~:text=Balance%20is%20the%20ability%20to.
- Cavalier, Jeff. “Never Do Ab Wheel Rollouts like This!” YouTube, 16 Sept. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3uK5TPzHq8.
Sam Lipscomb has been an avid health and fitness enthusiast for over 6 years now. He is a Certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist who has spent years learning about health, nutrition, fitness, the human body, and supplements in order to better help the individuals he interacts with.
His goal has been to learn everything he can to help others achieve their fitness goals and get accurate fitness information.