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The most effective core exercises are often overlooked. Perhaps they aren't flashy or exciting, but they are effective. It's kind of like saying, "You can get from point A to point B in a Ferrari or on horseback, but either way, you still get there." Building a strong core is the foundation for all athletics.
Ready to get on your trusty steed?
1. Decline Leg Raises
This is probably the most advanced exercise on the list. DLRs engage the hips and core to fire as a single functional unit, and they target those hard-to-get lower abs. If you find this exercise too advanced to perform safely, do it on the floor and keep your knees bent at 90 degrees. This will take much of the torque off your lower back and force it to your hips and abs. When you graduate from the modified version, try it on a decline bench with your knees bent 90 degrees. Eventually, you'll work up to doing it with your legs straight.
2. Decline Bench Sit-Up
This exercise stands the test of time—and for good reason. Why try to reinvent the wheel when it's still spinning? Simply hook your ankles in and go! If performing this on a decline is too difficult, simply perform regular Sit-Ups with your ankles hooked under dumbbells or a bench. After you graduate from the regular Sit-Up, try it on a decline bench. Beginners to the decline bench should take a short pause in the "down" position (as seen in the video below) before each rep. Eventually, you will move up to performing reps one after another without touching down.
3. Standing Cable Chops
Its roots stem from the movements of lumberjacks—who do chop and are strong. Set a cable tower to about mid-torso height. Step out to the side far enough that the weight never "bottoms out" on the stack at any point. Hold the handle with both arms extended and rotate from your torso. Your hands should always be directly in line with your sternum, and your feet should be at about shoulder width. Perform 3 sets of 10-12 reps on each side.
4. Hanging Leg Raises
This is another great exercise for targeting the lower abs. You can perform it with or without ab straps; both videos are provided below. Beginners should use the ab straps. Once in position, slowly raise your knees (or legs) toward your chest. If you feel yourself swinging, you are moving too fast. The key to making this exercise work is to pretend that you are pushing your elbows down toward your knees as you simultaneously raise your knees.
Hanging leg raises without ab straps:
Yep, the trusty plank! No exercise program should be without it, and here's why:
- It builds the foundation for proper Push-Ups. Ever see people who can bench their body weight, but when they do Push-Ups they suffer from "saggy hip syndrome?" It's because their core stabilizing strength is weak.
- It builds a stronger Squat and Deadlift. Both exercises require a core strong enough to stabilize your spine under a load. If you see people who can Leg Press a house yet avoid Squats like the flu, their core is probably weak.
- It promotes better posture. The Plank builds up those shoulder girdle muscles, which are necessary for proper posture. If you sit at a desk all day, I advise you to add Planks to your exercise routine.
- It builds abs. 'Nuff said.
6. Ab Wheel
After you've mastered the Plank, give this a try. It's another exercise that focuses on what I call dynamic stabilization, which means "to stabilize the core while the extremities are moving throughout their range of motion."
To successfully perform the Ab Wheel, you must already possess a decent amount of core stabilization strength. Dive down toward the floor slowly—you should be resisting gravity. Your hips should become "square" with the floor as you perform the exercise. On the way up, flare your lats as if you were performing a Dumbbell Pullover. At all times during the exercise, your torso should remain parallel with the floor. If you find yourself "leading with your butt" on the way up, focus on pressing the wheel down into the floor on the "up" phase.