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Sometimes the most difficult part about working your core is challenging yourself and getting outside your comfort zone of ab exercises.
“Shaping an impressive core takes a mix of moves that no one ever does, done in a way that most wouldn’t dare,” says Alec Penix, celebrity trainer and author of Seven Sundays (Howard Books, 2018).
These two circuits, designed by Penix, offer the perfect assortment of exercises to work your middle in every possible direction at a pace that will leave you breathless and burning.
Concentrate on doing each exercise with perfect form during the time given. And unless an exercise directs you otherwise, your goal is to perform each move with a two-second up, two-second down pace.
“What many people forget is that your core muscles’ primary job is to resist movement, not produce it,” Penix says. “When you rush through a move, you’re forcing your muscles to rely on momentum and work differently than how they’re designed.”
And before each exercise, Penix gives this tip:
“Contract your core even before you start a move. This immediately reinforces your posture, stabilizes your back and improves your form so that you’ll reap more results from the routine with less risk of injury.”
Perform Circuit A one day, Circuit B the next and either take a day off or repeat each circuit again before giving your core a rest.
Do all four exercises back-to-back for 30 seconds each with 10 seconds or less of rest between moves. After you’ve completed the circuit, rest 20 seconds, then repeat it once or twice more, depending on your fitness level.
To make a circuit more challenging, increase the duration of the work from 30 to 45 or 60 seconds. To make a circuit easier, work in reps rather than in time, and shoot for eight to 15 reps per move.
Lie flat on your back with your hands lightly touching the sides of your head, elbows flared, and your legs extended straight out. Lift your heels about 6 inches off the floor and press your lower back into the ground. Maintain that core contraction as you lift your head, shoulders and upper back off the floor and rotate to the right, simultaneously lifting your right knee to meet your left elbow at the midline of your body. Lower slowly to the start and continue, alternating sides.
Put two small towels on the floor, then get into a push-up position with one hand placed on each towel. Center your hands underneath your shoulders and align your head, hips and heels. Brace your core to keep your hips steady, then slide one arm straight out in front of you as far as you can without losing your balance. Pull the towel/hand back underneath you and continue, alternating sides.
Feet-Up Russian Twist
Sit with your knees bent and your feet raised just off the floor, legs together, ankles crossed. Keeping your spine straight, lean back with your torso back until it makes a 45-degree angle with the floor. Hold a small medicine ball or dumbbell with both hands, extend your arms straight out from your shoulders and brace your core. Moving your shoulders and arms as one unit, twist at the waist and rotate side to side smoothly yet briskly, without losing form.
Side Plank Hip Raise
Lie on your left side with your legs straight and stacked on top of each other. Position your left elbow underneath your left shoulder and press your palm into the floor. Hold a small dumbbell in your right hand and extend your right arm straight up to the ceiling. Press your hips up so you’re in side plank with your head, hips and heels aligned. Keep your right arm steady as you slowly lower your hips down to touch briefly on the floor, then raise them up again to align with your legs and torso. Complete all time on one side before switching.
Plank Jack Leg Lift
Get into plank with your elbows underneath your shoulders and your head, hips and heels aligned. Brace your core and actively press into the floor with your elbows and forearms as you quickly jump your feet open and then closed, keeping your hips low. Then lift one leg up as high as you can without arching your back and replace. Repeat with the other leg to complete one rep.
V-Crunch and Touch
Lie faceup with your legs extended straight and your arms extended up alongside your head. Simultaneously raise your legs and torso off the floor, sweeping your arms up and over in an arc so at the top of the crunch, your hands touch the floor on both sides of your hips. Reverse the steps to return to the start.
Twisting Split-Leg Crunch
Lie faceup with your hands lightly touching the sides of your head and your legs raised straight up over your hips. Open your legs apart into a V, keeping them straight. Press your lower back into the floor and maintain that contraction as you curl your torso up and rotate to the right, bringing your left elbow toward your right leg. (Note: Your legs do not move in this exercise, just your torso). Lower yourself back down and continue, alternating sides.
Side Plank Tuck
Lie on your left side with your legs straight and your hips stacked, and split your feet for balance. Position your left elbow underneath your left shoulder and actively press down into the floor with your elbow and forearm. Place the fingertips of your right hand behind your ear, elbow flared and pointing toward the ceiling, then lift your hips to align with your head and heels. Hold yourself steady in plank as you quickly draw your left knee into your chest and simultaneously curl forward and try to touch it with your right elbow. Return to the start. Complete all the time on one side before switching.
The Core Facts
Your abs are tougher than you think.
Even though most muscles need 48 hours of rest to recover and get stronger, your core muscles can actually become weaker if you ignore them. So long as you’re not overtraining and leaving your core so sore that it’s negatively affecting your other training days, you can train it every day. Also, remember to stretch them regularly for improved mobility and range of motion.
There is no “perfect” ab exercise.
Yes, one move may work a higher percentage of certain muscles within your core than another move. However, it takes a variety of exercises to do the job right and get you the midsection of your dreams. Include core moves that work in rotation, anti-rotation, flexion and even extension in your routine for best results. It’s not about quantity — it’s about quality.
It’s not about quantity — it’s about quality.
So long as you’re using perfect form and are actively engaging your core during each and every repetition, it doesn’t matter whether your muscles are exhausted after five or 50 reps. Also, remember to breathe as you perform the moves, delivering oxygen to working muscles and increasing the duration of time you can work.
Your six-pack is actually an eight-pack.
Your abs are one long sheet of muscle (the rectus abdominis) held in place by three strips of tendons running horizontally, with another strip (the linea alba) running vertically to cut them in half. If you do the math, this makes eight sections. Most people never see all eight, though; it depends on how strong/tight your tendons are and how low your body fat is. Sucking your gut in isn’t vain — it’s smart.
Sucking your gut in isn’t vain — it’s smart.
Pulling in your stomach (“bracing your core”) as you exercise — or even during the day when you’re not — strengthens your transverse abdominis, the hidden band of muscle that encircles your midsection like a corset and that is key in stabilizing your pelvis and engaging your core. It will also improve posture and give the appearance of a flatter belly.
A strong core makes other activities easier.
Strengthening your center can help improve your kinetic linking, the transfer of power from your feet to the rest of your body. For instance, when you throw a punch, the power goes from the floor to your feet through your hips and out your fist. The more fit your core is, the easier it is for your muscles to generate force, allowing you to run faster, lift heavier and train longer.