“Strong limbs on a weak core is like trying to fire a cannon from a canoe.”
Your core muscles form the foundation of everything else you do. Together, your core muscles bend, extend, rotate, and stabilize your body. Any time you create force or movement with your legs or arms, your core is where it all begins.
In this article, you will learn how to train your core effectively. From core muscle anatomy, to the best core exercises. And then we’ll put it all together into one effective core workout.
Core Muscle Anatomy
What, exactly, is your core?
While I’m not aware of a universally accepted definition, most would probably agree that your spine and your pelvis lies at the center of your core, and the muscles that surround these are your core muscles. That would mean that your core muscles are made up of your abdominal (including your obliques) and back muscles.
More specifically, the following are usually considered to be your largest and most important core muscles or muscle groups:
- Rectus abdominis
- Internal and external obliques
- Transversus abdominis
- Erector spinae
- Quadratus lumborum
- Pelvic floor
These muscles criss-cross between your pelvis, ribs, and spine, and together they enable all the complex movement and stabilization of your trunk. Several of these muscles are also involved in your respiration (breathing), either directly or indirectly.
Depending on where you draw the line, you might also consider your lats, traps, and glutes to be part of your peripheral core muscles.
How to Train Your Core
Your core is involved in almost all compound lifts that you perform while standing or otherwise supporting your own weight. Deadlifts, squats, overhead presses, push-ups, farmers walk, and barbell rows all work some of your core muscles, either statically or dynamically. So does exercises like planks, side planks, back extensions, and wood chops.
This means that you have a lot of options available to you when it comes to core training, and the possibility to suit your training to your specific circumstances and needs.
For core stability, exercises that challenge you to keep your core stable while exerting force are excellent. For this purpose, exercises like deadlifts, squats, push-ups, barbell rows, overhead presses, planks, and Bulgarian split squats will work great.
For dynamic core strength, you will need exercises that bend, extend, or rotate your core.
For the sake of this article, we will look into exercises in the latter category. We will not include various compound exercises such as deadlifts, squats, and overhead presses. The reason for this is that these kinds of exercises might already be part of your training program, and the purpose of this article is to provide guidance for those of you who are looking into adding extra core work to your current training regime, in a way that you might currently not be doing.
Mainly, we will focus on exercises picked from our training guides for abs, obliques, and lower back. These exercises will then be put together into an example core workout.
In this section, we’ll take a look at six different core exercises that complement each other in terms of what muscle they target. By putting them all together, as we’ll do in the next section, you can create a great core workout.
1. Ab Wheel Roll-Out
The ab wheel roll-out is heavy but challenges your core like few exercises do. The kneeling ab wheel roll-out primarily trains your rectus abdominis, but all four ab muscles are active in this exercise, striving to keep your core rigid and bringing you back to the kneeling position.
While standing roll-out is too heavy for most of us when we begin, and rather the fruit of many years of practice, the kneeling version is quite a lot easier to learn and gain the necessary strength for.
If the exercise is too heavy for you, you can make it easier by rolling out in front of a wall, and thus use the wall to limit your range of motion. Move further and further away from the wall as you become stronger.
If you don’t have access to an ab wheel, you can put small plates on a barbell and use that instead. Use a soft mat under your knees to make it more comfortable.
- Standing Ab Wheel Roll-Out
2. High to Low Wood Chop
While the high to low wood chop still train your rectus abdominis, it shifts the focus more onto your obliques. Your obliques create rotation and flexion in your core, which is precisely what you are combining in this exercise. It is simply a great oblique exercise.
You can do this exercise with a cable or an elastic band.
3. Hanging Leg Raise
Like the ab wheel roll-out, the hanging leg raise is a rather heavy ab exercise that primarily trains your rectus abdominis, but also parts of your obliques, transversus, and hip flexors.
You can make this exercise easier by bending your knees and perform a hanging knee raise. You can make it heavier by using ankle weights or holding a dumbbell between your feet. You can also increase the difficulty by bringing your toes all the way to the bar.
If it is uncomfortable to hang from a bar, you can lie down on the floor instead.
4. Back Extension
Let’s move on to the back of your core. The back extension is as close to an isolation exercise for your lower back muscles that you will get. This exercise allows you to focus your attention on your working muscles, and you can train it both without or with extra weight, like in the demonstration above. You can even unload the exercise some, by placing a chair or something similar close enough to rest your hands on it and push yourself up.
- Jefferson Curl
- Machine Back Extension
5. Lying Windshield Wipers
The lying windshield wiper is another exercise for your abdominal muscles that focuses on your obliques. Lie flat on your back, with your arms out to your sides for stability. Lift your legs straight up to begin the exercise, and then move them down to your sides, back and forth.
This is a heavy rotational oblique exercise, that can be made easier by bending your knees.
- Lying Windshield Wipers with Bent Knees
- Hanging Windshield Wipers
6. Side Plank
Finally, the side plank will challenge your stability and strength endurance. You can make this exercise easier by performing it on your knees and increase the difficulty by placing your feet on a ball or in gymnastic rings/straps.
Core Workout for Muscle Growth and Strength
So what does an effective core workout look like?
Building on the exercises above, we can construct an example workout that will work all of your core muscles, and that will be effective for both strength increases and muscle growth.
StrengthLog’s Core Workout
- Kneeling Ab Wheel Roll-Out: 3 sets x 8 reps
- High to Low Wood Chop: 3 sets/side x 10 reps
- Hanging Leg Raise: 3 sets x 12 reps
- Back Extension: 3 sets x 12 reps
- Lying Windshield Wipers: 2 sets x 16 reps
- Side Plank: 2 set/side x 1 minute
This shoulder workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
Together, these exercises will train your core well. Train these exercises with a good technique, and regularly try to increase the weight you are using or the number of reps you are doing while still maintaining good form, and your core is bound to grow stronger.
And that’s it! Hopefully, by now you have a good grasp of your core muscle anatomy, what some effective core exercises are, and how you can combine them into one great core workout.
Please feel free to download the StrengthLog workout tracker app to train this workout (and many more!) and track your gains. Remember to try and increase the weight and reps you are using in each exercise to ensure your continued muscle growth and strength gains.
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Do you want to read more of our muscle group training guides? You find them all here.