Everyone has an “abs” day in the weekly routine. But how many among us actually make a concerted effort to train the core? Many people still refer to the "core" as being just your abdominals when, in fact, the core is more broadly defined and includes all of the muscles that stabilize the spine, pelvis, and shoulder girdle. They run the entire length of the trunk and torso and include your glutes, hips, obliques, and rectus abdominis.
More Than Just Abs
Since the core is more than just your abs you need to follow a thorough core-strengthening program to be certain that you are zeroing in on the core from all angles. Many of the old school, basic exercises like push-ups and squats are actually considered core exercises. And it’s commonly known that elite powerlifters who squat and bench press huge loads have the strongest cores around.
But if you truly want to color your core training with some less conventional but highly effective moves, you can try any of these 5 offerings.
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>>Task: The deadlift engages more muscle fibers than just about any other activity you can do as a human. It requires you to be strong through your hips and glutes to extend to the top position, while your lower back, abs and obliques all work overtime in order to maintain proper body positioning.
>> Execution: Stand in front of the barbell with the barbell touching the shins. While keeping the back as straight as possible, bend your knees, hinge forward at the hips and grasp the bar using a shoulder-width, overhand grip. This will be the starting position. While holding the bar, start the lift by pushing through the floor with your feet while simultaneously getting your torso to the upright position as you breathe out. In the upright position, stick your chest out and bring the shoulder blades back. To reverse, bend the knees while simultaneously leaning the torso forward at the waist while keeping the back straight. When the plates touch the floor you are back at the starting position and ready to perform another repetition.
>> Tip: For a true deadlift, eliminate the bounce at the bottom. The weight should be lifted from a “dead” stop, hence the nomenclature.
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>> Task: Most of your abdominal work is done on your back but some of the best exercises that hit go beyond your sixer and hit your core are done facing the floor. The barbell rollout, which can also be done with an ab wheel, is both humbling and challenging.
>> Execution: For this exercise you will need to get into a pushup position, but instead of having your hands of the floor, you will be grabbing on to a loaded barbell (10 or 25 pounds on each side) instead. This will be your starting position. While keeping a slight arch on your back, lift your hips and roll the barbell towards your feet as you breathe out. As your perform the exercise, your glutes should be coming up, you should be keeping the abs tight and should maintain your back posture at all times. Your arms should also be staying perpendicular to the floor throughout the move. After a second contraction at the top, start to roll the barbell back forward to the starting position slowly as you breathe in. Repeat for the desired amount of reps.
>> Tip: If you’re new to the barbell rollout, you can try doing rollouts from your knees. When you can do 15 or more reps, try this more challenging version.
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>>Task: Often tossed into the category of exercises that alpha dudes like to label as “just for chicks,” the bridge builds brute strength and stamina through your glutes, hips and low back, helping you to beast your way through big lifts like squats, deadlifts and leg presses. In other words, you need this move in your bag o’ tricks.
>> Execution: Lie flat on the floor on your back with the hands by your side and your knees bent. Your feet should be placed around shoulder width. Pushing with your heels, lift your hips off the floor while keeping your back straight. Breathe out as you perform this part of the movement and hold at the top for one to two seconds. You should be on your upper shoulders while being careful not to over arch. Slowly go back to the starting position as you breathe in. Repeat for the desired amount of reps.
>> Tip: Take advantage of the DOMS-inducing benefits of higher volume sets in the beginning but work your way toward heavier, lower-rep sets where you have a barbell positioned across the front of your hips.
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4. Dumbbell Farmers Walk
>> Task: Carrying heavy stuff from here to there (surprise) places a huge demand on all the muscles of your core. Get really good at it, while bolstering your body against injury, by mixing this move into your routine.
>> Execution: Begin by standing between two dumbbells. After gripping the handles, lift them up by driving through your heels, keeping your back straight with your chin up and shoulders back. Walk taking short, slow steps, and make sure you breathe. Travel for a desired distance, typically about 100 feet. Your form should look like that of a farmer walking with a heavy wheelbarrow. This move also challenges your grip strength and elevates your heart rate.
>> Tip: For even greater core engagement, try this move’s sister lift: the suitcase carry. The execution is the same, only you perform your sets carrying a single, heavy dumbbell on one side.
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5. Dumbbell Side Bend
>> Task: Once a popular part of common oblique training curriculum, the side bend is not as de rigeur as it once was. Lifters feared that this would widen their waistlines by thickening the walls of the obliques. The truth is that regular side bends will not only enhance your waistline aesthetic but it can also greatly improve lateral spinal strength and stability, which is a huge difference maker in nearly any lift but especially on overhead moves.
>> Execution: Stand up straight while holding a dumbbell with the left hand (palm facing the leg) as you have the right hand placed behind the back of your head. Your feet should be placed at shoulder width. While keeping your back straight and your head up, bend only at the waist to the left as far as possible. Breathe in as you bend to the side. Then hold for a second and come back up to the starting position as you exhale. Now repeat the movement but bending to the left instead. Hold for a second and come back to the starting position. Repeat for the desired amount of reps and then switch up hands.
>> Tip: It’s easy to let form deviation creep into this move. Go only as far as you are comfortable going on the negative portion of each rep and focus on keeping your movement left to right.
Build any of these five core-specific movements into your weekly split to start seeing all-over gains in strength.
Jim Ryno, CPT, is the owner of LIFT Studios, a private personal-training facility in New Jersey. For more training advice, visit his personal website at www.jimryno.me.