A strong core isn’t just for fitness models and athletes—it’s an area of your body that contributes to just about every move you make. Even getting out of bed in the morning and bending over to tie your shoes requires a strong core. So, it’s important to keep it strong. “Because many people associate the core with rock hard, six-pack abs, they tend to overlook the many other important core muscles,” explains Caleb Backe, certified personal trainer and health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics. “As a result, the core can be tough to properly exercise if you don’t know exactly which muscles you should be targeting.” To help you utilize more of the muscles in your mid-section, we asked top trainers to share their secrets for hard core workouts. Read on to learn how to take your basic core moves to the next level.
Only use one arm or leg.
If you’ve ever participated in a workout class, you’ve probably heard the instructor share modifications to make a certain exercise more challenging. It most likely incorporated the use of only one arm, hand, or leg. “By limiting yourself to solo use of a limb, you can significantly boost your internal stability and core strength,” explains Backe. To execute this advanced move correctly, he recommends avoiding the natural inclination to lean to one side. We do this to compensate for the imbalance. “Instead, focus your core muscles and resist the urge to lean. [This way] your core has to accommodate the uneven forces,” he advises.
Use an unstable base.
Instead of doing your core exercises on the floor or any other stable surface, Backe suggests mixing things up by using an unstable platform. “Studies show that this can increase muscle thickness exponentially. Especially in the oblique and transversus abdominis muscles,” he says. “Furthermore, since your core has to compensate for the imbalance, these workouts are proven to enhance lumbar stability by engaging the multifidus muscle and adjusting trunk balance.” If you’re recovering from an injury, this is also a beneficial modification. Unstable-surface strength training can help prevent injury to targeted muscle groups.
Pay attention to breathing.
While you might not initially think that simple breathing techniques could help you carve out a set of abs, Anka Urbahn, personal trainer, transformation fitness expert, and founder of Urbahn Fit, says that it’s one of the most overlooked exercise move accompaniments. “Breathing exercises not only help [strengthen] your core but also help relieves stress. This is good for the body and the mind,” she says. “Take a deep breath in. Then breathe out until you get all the air exhaled from your lungs five times in the row. You should feel your abdominals burning.”
Practice proper form.
“Proper form is a necessary component of any good workout. This is especially true when it comes to exercising your core muscles,” explains Backe. “It increases stress on the muscle with time under tension. [Also] proper form allows you to successfully target the intended muscles.” It’s also one of the best ways to prevent an exercise injury. This is especially true since most occur as a result of improper form.
Add in total body exercises.
Instead of spending so much of your time focusing on core-specific exercise moves, such as crunches or planks, Backe recommends attempting total body exercises. “Full-body workouts, such as barbell bench presses, squats, and lunges, are an excellent way to improve your core strength. [They] work by forcing your muscles to function in tandem,” he says. “These workouts are especially great for people who don’t have time to hit the gym or [who] are recovering from an injury.”
Do multiple core-training techniques at once.
Cary Raffle, CPT, an orthopedic exercise specialist in New York City, explains that combining your core training with other exercises trains your core to stabilize while other body parts are moving. “All of the exercises begin by drawing your abdominal muscles in as if you were performing a plank. Examples include single leg versions of standing chest press, rows, biceps curls, triceps extensions. As well as lunges and exercises performed on balance boards and stability balls,” he says.
Incorporate a healthy diet.
They say exercise is 20 percent of the effort required to get into good shape. The other 80 percent is healthy eating. And for good reason. If you’re trying to show off your core, especially, focusing on a healthy diet consisting of a good mix of healthy fats, protein, fiber, complex carbs, and a lot of water is essential, explains Elesa Zehndorfer, Ph.D. sports scientist and author. “Having a tight core is like wearing an internal belt. You might lose inches pretty quickly, simply by performing a lot of core work. Even before you lose any body fat. But the diet is absolutely crucial in keeping a lean physique in the midsection area,” she says.