Core strength can be pretty complicated if you want it to make it that way. With all of the big muscle groups—abs, lower back, even hamstrings—that tie in to your torso, there's a lot going on around your trunk…and many different ways you can exercise it.
But if you're a busy athlete, you don't have time to geek out on muscle intricacies. You need a strong core that helps you perform your best. Period. For you, here are four simple core-training rules that will maximize the strength of your midsection in minimal time.
Rule 1: Don't Forget Your Lower Back
The core comprises everything between the chest and hips on the front and backside of the body. Endless sets of Crunches, Sit-Ups and Leg Raises only target a small area of your entire core. (Find out if you should perform Crunches.)
If your lower back is weak while your abs are strong, the stronger muscles up front will move your pelvis forward (called a "pelvic tilt"), which can cause serious low-back, hip and knee pain.
Counter this by regularly performing exercises that engage the lower back, such as Reverse Hypers and Back Extensions. Also, the Deadlift is one of the best exercises to strengthen the lower back—along with the rest of the body.
Rule 2: Stop Creating Movement and Start Resisting Unwanted Movement
The core works best when it's keeping your body stable and resisting outside force. Think of when a running back crashes through defenders, yet still remains upright and on course. His core muscles are what allow him to absorb the blows and keep going.
Improve your stability and strength with these anti-rotation exercises:
- Plate Transfer Plank - 4x3
- Split-Stance Cable Lift - 4x15-20 each side
- Suitcase Deadlifts - 3-4x10
- Suspended Fallouts - 3-4x10
Rule 3: Big Lifts are King
Isolation movements that specifically target the abs or low back can help, but what really builds core strength are large, multi-joint exercises like Squats, Deadlifts, Standing Presses, Overhead Squats, Pull-Ups, Bent-Over Rows and Inverted Rows. While the core isn't necessarily the focus of these moves, it is crucial to all of them.
Nothing illustrates this better than the difference between the Leg Press and the Squat. Strong athletes who can Leg Press hundreds of pounds often find that they cannot lift nearly as much weight when they squat. Why? Because during the Squat, the core is engaged and must help support the weight on the shoulders. It takes a lot more effort—even though you're lifting less weight.
Rule 4: Abs are Made in the Kitchen
If you're going after a look, or training to get those coveted "six-pack abs," you need to pay closer attention to what you eat. You'll never see your abs if they're coated in a layer of fat and water.
Diets high in carbs, sodium or sugar encourage water retention and fat gain, often directly around the mid-section. So swap out sugars, salty foods and starches in favor of lean proteins, vegetables and some whole-grain carbs. (Learn how to lose weight and gain muscle.)