Having a strong and defined core is a common goal among lifters. Getting abs — Brad Pitt in Fight Club abs — is why many people set foot in the gym, to begin with. Beyond looking good, a strong pair of abs are essential to your everyday life. Your core — which is comprised of many muscles — keeps you upright. A strong core also protects your spine during lifts like the deadlift and squat.
There is a right and wrong way to train your core, and below we’ll go over five must-know core training rules. Of course, we must note that no amount of training will whittle your middle down to your aesthetic ideal without a proper diet. You must count your macros and ensure you’re burning enough calories. Otherwise, the scale will never tip the way you want.
That said, here’s what you need to know about training your core.
Rules of Core Training
- Realize The Core Is More Than Just The “Abs”
- Acknowledge Fiber Type
- Brace Accordingly
- Train Your Core Progressively
- Incorporate Core-Specific Training
The core is often regarded as only the front-showing portion of the torso — you know, the “six-pack” — but the core is much more than the rectus abdominis. Instead of referring to the core as one muscle group, it’s important to recognize that “the core” is actually made up of all the musculature of the torso and hips that create stability and positioning for the body’s center of mass.
Once you understand that your core is more than just your abs, you’re able to get creative about your training. One useful way to approach variety with core training is to separate exercises by their main movements: flexion, lateral flexion, rotation, and anti-rotation. That way, instead of focusing only on things like crunches (flexion), you’ll attack your core training with a more well-rounded approach that will get you much, much stronger.
The Takeaway: Only performing core exercises that result in torso flexion will limit your growth. It would help if you incorporated rotation, anti-rotation, and isometrics into your core routine.
Generally speaking, your core is usually composed of a mixture of Type I (slow-twitch) fibers and Type II (fast-twitch) fibers. The majority of the composition airing on the side of slow-twitch fibers. Muscles that play a large role in stability and posture support are usually composed of more Type I muscle fibers (here’s looking at you, soleus and erector spinae). Their main role in daily life is to support posture by resisting gravity continuously, so they need to be highly resistant to fatigue.
By understanding fiber type, you’re better able to partition core training to reflect how these muscles will respond best to external stimulus and progress. Using muscular endurance-focused core training, you can improve upon the slow-twitch fibers that heavily make up the core. Using progressive overload training to increase time under tension and total volume or upping individual set reps.
Now, there’s a caveat. The above is not intended to create a bias towards only one kind of core training. There are still Type II (fast-twitch) fibers in the core, and they need to be trained with exercises that focus on strength and power.
What does this mean?
Let’s look at the squat and deadlift. To perform heavy reps with either of these exercises, there needs to be ample intra-abdominal pressure. This pressure supports the spine, which protects it from injury. In addition, this pressure assists with movement mechanics. For this scenario, a lifter’s brace will be much more calculated and rigid and will only last a few seconds before needing to reset and re-brace.
Now, let’s look at the plank or a Pallof press. These exercises have a time or high rep (generally) goal, which means the way you brace for them needs to be different. This is where developing a passive bracing strategy comes into play. When performing movements like the plank, you should brace the core, but only to the point that it sustains good posture. For example, your brace in the plank should not completely limit breathing like your brace in the squat.
This concept is food for thought and will need to be interpreted and adapted based on the context of the exercise being performed, as different movements and intensities will require different levels of torso rigidness.
The Takeaway: Brace in a way that realistically promotes function. Forcing the body into an extremely rigid base for core movements can be counterproductive for growth and training.
Too often, people leave core training — when they do it at all — to the whims of their mood. You might throw in some half-assed planks at the end of a hard training session if you have time to spare in your cooldown… but then again, if you don’t feel like it, you’ll call it a day.
But making sure you’re approaching your core training with the same discipline you bring to your other lifts is important. Typically, you wouldn’t just show up to leg day and throw random weight on the bar and perform whatever moves and reps you feel like doing. Sure, there’s a method to keeping your training fresh and staying engaged in your workouts — but generally speaking, you’re working a specific program based on some progression. You squatted 3×5 last week at 80%, so this week you’ll add another rep to each set with the same intensity.
Approach training your core the same way — you were able to hold a perfectly braced weighted plank for 90 seconds in your last session. This time, either up the weight or keep the weight the same and hold the tension for longer, depending on the demands of your overall program. Basically, you want to be making sure you have a clear starting point with your core lifts and that you’re improving them steadily. Spoiler: using this progressive approach will also make you more invested in your core training since it’ll be more intentional than random (and therefore, you’ll have goals to strive for).
The Takeaway: Treat your core training with the same discipline and respect as you do other aspects of your program, aiming to improve your lifts progressively.
Depending on where you are in your training and your individual goals, you may or may not incorporate full-on core-specific training sessions into your program.
If you’re in a microcycle where you’re approaching a meet or are just generally focused on building your max strength, you’ll need to keep your recovery needs in mind: you don’t want to have a full-on core-focused session before you do any of your big lifts, which means you probably don’t want to do any at all. Instead, when you integrate core-specific training into your program, you’ll intentionally incorporate core-specific moves into your accessory work. Base this on your weaknesses — add Pallof presses if you’re having trouble with anti-rotation and stability during your deadlift, for example — and think about the principles of minimum effective dosing to maximize your recovery.
When you’re in a more general hypertrophy phase, though, you might indeed decide that you want to incorporate a session or half a session per week that’s largely dedicated to training your core. Why? If you’re not lifting extra heavy, you might want to put in some extra time under tension to keep your overall core strength sharp so that when you dive, pulling and pushing max weight, your core won’t be your limiting factor.
The Takeaway: Squats and deadlifts aren’t necessarily all the core work you need — get in some separate core training, too.
About Your Core
Your core is the literal centerpiece of each and everything you physically do — it’s what keeps you stable when you’re sitting at your desk working and when you’re bracing for a deadlift PR. But when so many folks are taught to only think of “abs” when they think of “core,” it can be hard to develop a three-dimensional picture of what your core actually is.
Instead of thinking of your core as something you need to sit up and down repeatedly, think of it as your torso and glutes in three dimensions. Some of the major muscles that make up the core along with their functions are as follows:
- Rectus Abdominis: Trunk flexion and assists in creating intra-abdominal pressure
- External Obliques: Trunk rotation and assist with spinal rotation and passive flexion
- Internal Obliques: Support abdominal wall, trunk rotation, spinal stability, and forced respirations
- Transverse Abdominis: Trunk movement, spinal stability, assists in creating intra-abdominal pressure and anterior core tension.
- Erector Spinae: Spinal extension, ipsilateral trunk flexion, and spinal stability
- Glute Maximus: Hip extension and external rotation
- Glute Medius: Internal rotation of the thigh (anterior fibers), thigh abduction, pelvis stability
- Iliopsoas: Hip flexion
So what does all that mean? It means that when you think about training your core, you should think about your glutes and your low back, not just your six-pack. To have a solid core — one that can support the activities of your daily life and the heavy lifts you dream of and practice for — you want to be able to hinge at the hips with a stiff back, sink into a deep squat with a proud chest, and resist weighted pulls to rotate down or to either side. In other words, you need a wide variety of moves to create the most effective core training plan.
The Best Core Exercises
As with anything, the “best” exercises will always depend on your goals, but generally speaking, the moves below will build a strong base for your core training and your body overall. Remember, of course, that the best exercises are the ones that you can safely do — if you struggle with shoulder impingements, ab rollouts and overhead carries may not be your best friend, so stick with suitcase carries and Pallof presses instead.
Training your core’s eccentric strength is a fantastic way to recruit muscle fibers that wouldn’t normally get engaged during your “ab” workout.
To perform ab rollouts, you’ll extend your torso to the ground, letting a barbell loaded with round weight plates or an ab wheel guide your motion. Maintain full-body stability throughout, and instead of targeting upper or lower abs like so many exercises do, you’ll engage your rectus abdominis and external and internal obliques all in one go. On top of that, ab rollouts are easy to periodize so that you can track your progress over time.
Suitcase carries are simple to visualize — walk around with a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand, much like you would if you were carrying a suitcase — but the benefits are far from casual. Throughout your weighted walk, you’ll aim to look like you’re not carrying a darn thing: i.e., keep your shoulders even, neither tilted down on the weighted side nor overcompensating by leaning to the opposite side.
This will train your core in anti-rotation and stability during full-body movement (walking), which will help out in a big way when you start loading extra plates onto your Olympic lifts. Make sure you’re finding that balance between using sufficiently heavy loads to stimulate strength gains and also being able to maintain good form with a solid amount of time under tension. It’s okay if this takes some trial and error when you’re first integrating the movement into your training.
You’ll perform your suitcase carries with the weight held at your side, but with this version of a weighted carry, you’ll be adding the essential element of overhead stability and strength. Overhead carries will require up the ante of your core’s anti-rotational strength, made even more challenging by the fact that the weight is now balanced above your head and center of mass.
Make sure you’re not tilted to either side as you execute this lift, and resist the temptation to hunch your weighted arm up toward your head. Instead, keep both shoulders locked down and away from your ears to keep your shoulders safe and to maximize your lat engagement.
The Pallof press has you press a resistance band — looped around a sturdy anchor point — away from your chest. The band should be tugging you to one side the whole time, and you should be resisting. Aim to appear as though the band’s pressure is all coming from directly in front of you, rather than leaning to one side or the other.
By keeping your torso, hips, and shoulders all facing the same direction — refusing to twist toward the origin of the band you’re working with — you’ll be targeting your core for major strength-building without putting all the pressure of a heavy squat or dead onto your erector spinae. Instead, you’ll be getting all the benefits to your core at a fraction of the recovery cost.
How often can I train core?
The core can be directly trained multiple times a week, since it is predominantly made up of smaller muscles with a fair amount of slow-twitch muscle fibers. A good rule of thumb is to train core on days that potential fatigue won’t limit main lifting performance.
In terms of recovery to benefit your other lifts, a good frequency for many to experiment with would be:
- Beginners: Two times per a week
- Intermediate: Three to five time a week
Be sure to reduce the number of sets you perform if you’re logging more sessions per week.
What muscles make up the core?
The core can be defined as all of the muscles of the torso and hips that support the positioning of the body’s center of mass. Some of the major core muscles include:
- Rectus Abdominis
- External Obliques
- Internal Obliques
- Transverse Abdominis
- Erector Spinae
- Glute Maximus
- Glute Medius
What is the best core exercise?
Any core exercise can be useful and beneficial when deployed in the right context for a prescribed adaptation. The best means of training the core is to use various exercises and intensities to ensure the core is being engaged in a well-rounded approach.
Are crunches and sit-ups bad for you?
Not necessarily — if you do them without yanking at your neck, avoid using momentum, and actually lift from your core instead of your chest or hip flexors, crunches and sit-ups probably won’t hurt you. However, they’re also far from an effective use of your time and energy. Remember that you get good at what you train for — so if your goal is to get really good at torso flexion for high reps, then you’ll likely accomplish that goal with high rep crunches and sit-ups.
But that’s probably not your goal. If your goal is to forge a stronger core that can help you increase your lifting load and decrease low back pain, you’ll want to avoid spending time on crunches and sit-ups, and opt instead for multi-purpose core exercises like weighted one-sided carries, ab rollouts, and even planks.
Are squats and deadlifts enough to train your core?
Squats and deadlifts will indeed help you forge a stronger core — if you’re doing them right, they’ll have to, because you need a powerful, stable core to produce powerful, stable lifts. But if you’re not also focusing on your core separately, it will likely become a limiting factor in your big lifts. So make sure you’re training your core on its own for the sake of improving your squats, deadlifts, and the overall strength and stability of your center of mass.
More Core Training Content
Like every other muscle group, core training needs intent and strategy to progress truly. If one of your missions builds a stronger core, check out some of the useful core training articles below.