It’s been about 20 years since I’ve heard the term “core” as it relates to a muscle group or exercise. Maybe I’m showing my age but “core” still evokes images of an apple core instead of six-pack abs. Since we hear a lot about our cores these days, it’s important to remember that your core is comprised of more than your abdominals—it’s also the muscles of your obliques and your lower back.
One of my very first clients was a Navy Seal who asked me, “How do I get a flat stomach?” I explained to him that squats—not crunches—were the key to a strong mid-section. The reality is that slow, strict resistance training that works large muscle groups will give you the most bang for your buck as you work to reduce body fat and increase lean muscle. The effort, intensity and form you use doing these resistance training exercises will have a much bigger impact on your core muscles than doing hundreds of crunches, sit-ups or planks.
The Best Core Exercises
The list of exercises that are most effective at working your core probably doesn’t look like you might expect. They are:
- Squats – known as the “king” (or queen) of all exercises, work the largest and most muscle groups in the body.
- Deadlifts – a close second to squats, deadlifts are a lower body compound “pull” exercise. This means that not only are they working the largest muscle group in your lower body, but they also target and strengthen the biggest upper body muscle group – your back.
- Chin-ups – an upper body “pull” exercise. Many individuals do not have the upper body strength to perform even one bodyweight chin-up, but you can still get the full benefit of this exercise by performing it with a little help. The Assisted Chin-up Machine at your gym can help, but if you don’t have access to a machine, you can still perform part of this exercise with a chin-up bar and a bench or chair. Standing on your bench for assistance, start with your chin already over the bar, bend your knees, then lower yourself as slowly as possible until your arms are fully stretched overhead. And repeat until you can no longer slowly lower yourself.
Of course, your form, positioning, and alignment are key to making sure you safely receive the benefits from these exercises. When in doubt, seek the advice of a personal trainer who can help!
Time Under Tension, Intensity & “Stabilizer” Muscles
To get the full benefit of these exercises for core muscles, you should be working to momentary muscular failure. Similarly, performing each exercise a minimum of 90 seconds total time under load ensures the smaller “stabilizer” and assistant muscles of the abs, obliques and low back are working to add tension and maintain alignment and correct body positioning.
Hormonal & Metabolic Influence
As we age, all of our body’s hormone levels start to decrease; it’s a natural part of the aging process. It’s especially important that women focus on strength training to combat the effects of hormone loss, which can wreak havoc on our muscles and overall fitness. Our bodies respond well to intense resistance training—especially to compound movements such as rows, bench presses and deadlifts. The hormonal and metabolic response to intense resistance training that focuses on large muscle groups has been shown to be extremely effective at combating the impact of aging on our bodies. That’s why it’s important to continue to incorporate thoughtful and structured resistance training into your workouts as you age.
If you’re looking to train your “core” as best you can, think about incorporating some compound resistance exercises like squats, deadlifts and chin-ups to your workouts…rather than adding planks and crunches. A personal trainer can help you get started and make sure that you’re performing the exercises listed above with proper form. And the next time someone asks you your favorite and best core exercise, answer “squats!”