A six-pack is often considered the holy grail of fitness. And if that’s your fitness goal, you do you.
But having a six-pack does not automatically mean you are healthy. It also doesn’t automatically mean you’re not healthy (underweight). As Men’s Health explains it, “really, those abs aren’t great correlations for much of anything.”
Even more important in a healthy life than visible abs is a strong core. A strong core can improve your balance and stability in daily life, as well as other sports, according to the Mayo Clinic. A strong core may translate into visible ab muscles, if your body fat is low enough. But regardless of whether you can wash laundry on your stomach or not, building your core muscles has a ton of benefits.
“Think of your core muscles as the sturdy central link in a chain connecting your upper and lower body. Whether you're hitting a tennis ball or mopping the floor, the necessary motions either originate in your core, or move through it,” according to Harvard Medical School.
The good news is many strength-training and cardio exercises can contribute to building your core. Especially compound movements that require bracing (like squats and deadlifts) and cardio activities (like kickboxing and burpees).
Still, if you’d like to give extra focus to your core, here are nine great exercises to try, along with the equipment needed.
1. Cable crunches
Kneeling crunches using a Tricep Rope attached to a cable machine or a resistance band are great for all levels. Holding the rope on your traps/neck to your head, you will crunch down against the resistance on the cables. Here’s an instructional video for you visual learners. Make sure you keep your core engaged the whole time and your neck neutral.
2. Supported Sit-Ups
Sit-ups are the most familiar type of core exercise. Make sure you’re in proper position with an Ab Support Mat. With sit-ups, you will lift your check until you’re almost sitting. Don’t pull on your neck as you raise; initiate the movement with your abdominals.
You can also make sit-ups more fun (and difficult) by playing sit-up toss with a medicine ball and a partner.
3. Side Bends
Hit your obliques with standing side bends, which you can do with a cable machine or simply a dumbbell in one hand, palm facing your body. Keeping your core tight, bend at the waist to the side, hold, and return to standing.
4. Ab rolls
The Ab Roller is a challenging core exercise that also works the whole body: lats, delts, chest, arms, back. Ab rollers demand full-body tension, control and balance, so they’re not necessarily a beginner move.
Barbend provides some smart progressions to help you safely build up to using an Ab Roller, such as starting roll-outs on a fitness ball.
5. Mat exercises
You can do so much on an exercise mat: planks, dead bugs, bird dogs, bicycle crunches, reverse crunches, lying leg raises, V-ups – the list goes on. For proper planking, make sure your elbows line up under your shoulders and your butt isn’t sticking up in the air. The trick to making these most effective is to squeeze all your muscles while holding the position for as long as possible.
Want to make your planks harder/different? Flip a Balance Ball Trainer on the round blue side, grip the handles on the black bottom, and balance in a plank on that.
6. Hanging knee raises
These are great for working the abs (rectus abdominus – those front ab muscles) and you may also feel it in the hip flexors. You can also do oblique-focused knee raises to the side. Here’s a great tutorial on how to properly do these. Hint: No swinging, curl your knees up all the way to your chest with more spinal flexion. As you get stronger, you can try them with straight legs.
What you’ll need? A pull-up bar on your power rack or a wall/ceiling mount pull-up bar. You can use a bench to help you reach the bar and arm slings to assist you, although you can also just hang from your hands.
7. Wood choppers
8. Decline sit-ups/crunches
Do these on a decline bench, where you’ll get an added range of motion. The angle of the bench affects the difficulty. With a sit-up, you will (go figure) sit up all the way, whereas crunches only curl up your shoulders and upper back.
Note: The main muscle used in decline crunches the “six-pack muscle,” or rectus abdominus. Keep it engaged to prevent overusing your hip flexors.
Add difficulty by holding onto a Medicine Ball or playing a game of medicine ball catch with a partner (throw it as you sit up).
A great, versatile bench to use is the AB-3000, a flat-incline-decline bench.
9. Russian twists
Do these oblique exercises with your feet down, if you’re new, or lifted up as you get stronger. Rotate at the trunk, touching an elbow to the floor as you move from one side to the other. Here’s a visual.
As you get stronger, you can add load to these with a kettlebell, medicine ball, or other weight. Adding weight also requires your abs to stabilize against the weight as you move. Double bang for your buck.