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Most workout programs involve some semblance of abdominal training. In the bodybuilding world, it’s usually rooted in aesthetics – getting “ripped abs” and the like. However, just as, if not more important than how your abs look in the mirror is having a strong core. Here are some tips on building one.
Before moving on, it bears mentioning that a set of “ripped, six-pack abs” and a strong core are not the same thing, nor is having one an indication that you have the other. It’s quite possible to have “six pack abs”, yet not have a strong core, and vice versa. Ripped abs are merely a product of muscular definition, which is had by lowering your bodyfat levels. On the other hand, having a strong core comes about from both direct and indirect training of the muscles along the torso. While you probably desire both, just don’t make the mistake of thinking that washboard abs automatically translate into an injury-proof midsection.
One of the best ways to develop a strong core is to ensure that a majority of the rest of your workout is comprised of big, heavy, compound movements, as these will all indirectly target and strengthen the core. It’s impossible to squat heavy without a strong core to support the barbell on your back, and you’ll never do a heavy standing overhead press if your core isn’t strong enough to stabilize your body. Steadily progress to heavier weights on big movements like these, and your core will naturally get stronger along the way.
According to a study by the American College of Sports Medicine and the United States Department of Health and Human Services, a strong core is best built via compound core exercises, followed up by a few extra isolation movements. Your best choices in this instance for movements to be considered “compound” include swinging a sledge hammer, various cable “chopping” movements, ab wheel rollouts, medicine ball slams, toes to bar, and dragon flags.
Do consider that there can be many ways to perform some of these exercises. You might not have a sledge hammer on hand with a big tire to hit, but a similar type of movement could be done by swinging a tornado ball or throwing a medicine ball up against a wall. You could use a barbell or furniture sliders in lieu of an ab wheel, or you could simply start in pushup position, walk your hands out as far as you can, then walk them back to the starting position.
Performing 1-2 of these exercises for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps will be more than enough.
After having done your compound core exercise(s), a good next step to build a strong core would be to do an “isolation” core exercise. This would essentially be any sort trunk curling movement. You could curl your upper body toward your stationary lower body such as in a situp, regular crunch, janda situp, cable crunch, or the like. Conversely, you could curl your lower body toward your stationary upper body such as in a reverse crunch, leg lift, or knee raise variation. Like the “compound” core exercises, do 1-2 “isolation” movements for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps. You can use variations of these exercises to make them harder if 8-12 reps is easy.
A good way to finish off your strong core workout could be to hold a plank for time. You could either do a standard plank off your elbows or in the top position of a pushup. Another option would be to do side planks, however, just be sure that you keep the time held even for both right and left sides. Keep note of how long you hold your planks, trying to increase that time with each new outing.
While a strong core is highly desirable, it doesn’t have to be hard to achieve. Pick 1-2 compound and isolation core movements each, followed up by a plank variation at the end of your normal workout 3-4 times a week or as simple little “mini-workouts” on the side. Rotate through the various exercise options regularly so as to have a more well-rounded effect on your core, and don’t forget that while your core may get stronger, that won’t automatically lead to “six pack abs”.