You’ve tried every core exercise imaginable: crunches, planks, pikes, ab-wheels, you name it. But it turns out the most important core-strengthener isn’t actually a “core” exercise at all. It’s every other exercise you do in the gym. Performed correctly, those exercises improve the strength, stability and functionality of your core better than any traditional “core” exercise.
“A person can have the strongest core in the world without ever touching the abs with a crunch or plank,” says Erik Marthaler, CPT, co-owner of Lateral Fitness in Chicago. It stands to reason: In one Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study, when researchers had exercisers perform heavy squats and deadlifts, they activated a far greater percentage — and a greater degree — of their core than when they performed dedicated core-stability exercises including the side-plank and superman.
After all, the core is quite literally the foundation for your entire body, comprising not just your six-pack muscles (aka your rectus abdominis) or your deep-lying transverse abdominis, but also your spinal stabilizers, lats, traps, heck, even your pecs.
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“To effectively train the core, we need to stop looking at the body as a hacked-together grouping of various body parts, and instead look at how the body functions overall,” says Mike T. Nelson, PhD, a Minnesota-based strength coach and exercise physiologist. As the core is the main connection between the upper and lower body, training it that way is the key to a stronger, more functional total body.
MAKE EVERY EXERCISE A CORE EXERCISE
When it comes to strengthening the foundation of your body, some of the best movements include squats, deadlifts, step-ups, lunges and large push and pull movements such as the bench press, standing cable row and all-powerful pullup. Other great options include the farmer’s carry, where you stand tall, hold a weight (or two) and walk across the gym floor.
While these exercises are generally added to workout programs to strengthen the glutes, hamstrings, quads, pecs or lats, it’s important to remember that proper execution of any of them requires and builds a strong, stable core. “Your body almost automatically tightens up to make a sturdier base when doing these exercises,” Marthaler says.
However, you can increase the core contraction by coordinating deep diaphragmatic breathing in your movements, he says. During the eccentric — or easy part of an exercise (i.e., lowering into a squat or lowering down in a pushup) — inhale slowly through your nose inflating your abdomen. Then, as soon as you begin the concentric — or hard part of an exercise (i.e., raising out of a squat or pushing away from the floor in a pushup) — forcefully push the air out through your mouth, tightening your abs like you’re about to get punched in the gut.
WHAT ABOUT TRADITIONAL CORE EXERCISES?
Your core-centric planks, deadbugs and Pallofs can still be part of your exercise routine — and they should be especially if your core is weaker than the rest of your body, Nelson says.
How do you know if your core is relatively weak? During every exercise, pay attention to how your body feels. If you regularly feel your core shaking when performing standing shoulder presses or your core gives out before your chest and shoulders do during pushups, your core needs strengthening. Similarly, if you can squat or deadlift considerably more weight when you wear a weight belt, it’s a sign your core could use a little extra love.