If there is a symbol of fitness in modern culture, it’s the six pack. But you don’t need to have your abs on display just to have a strong core and there are much greater benefits to a firm trunk than looking like a hunk. “Your core muscles are used in every single movement you perform,” explained trainer James Middleton, “from squatting in the gym to carrying your shopping bags and wiping the kitchen table.”
“A well-developed core will improve posture and increase strength output, as it is the body’s primary energy transfer system,” added coach Arby Keheli. “The core also protects the body from injury, due to its role in stabilisation and balance, as well as, from a structural point of view, protecting the organs.”
We spoke to some of the biggest – both physically and symbolically – names in fitness for a guide to getting your core up to snuff. If you feel you’ve given it a good once over and are ready to see how much that work is going to improve your other workouts, feel free to check out our guides to the biceps, triceps, chest, shoulder, glutes, legs or forearms.
Chris Magee, head of yoga at Psycle London
These four exercises work all sections of the trunk evenly for maximum effectiveness, stability and balance within your body.
Exercise one: low boat pose
Press your lower back firmly into the ground and pull your navel towards your spine.
Lift the legs, arms and shoulder blades from the floor. Stay as low as possible with good control over the lower back.
To simplify the movement, bring the knees towards the chest. To make it more challenging bring the biceps to the ears, reaching the arms behind your head. (Feeling extra strong? Hold a weight or yoga block here.)
Perform by holding or rocking for five sets of 60 seconds (or ten slow breaths) each.
This is great for the transverse and rectus abdominals and prepping your handstand.
Exercise two: arrowhead lunge
Starting in a standard lunge position with your arms reaching overhead, actively pull your navel in and begin to lean your torso and arms forward to a 45-degree angle hovering over your front thigh.
Hold the position for ten seconds, before slowly returning to the lunge.
The key here is keeping the neutrality of the spine. If you notice you are rounding forward, try to decrease the range and improve your control. Make life easier by bringing your arms alongside your body. Give yourself an extra challenge by holding a small weight/yoga block between your hands.
Perform three sets of five reps, with a ten-second hold in the end position on each leg.
This is great for torso stabilisation, transverse abdominals and lower-back strength.
Exercise three: arrowhead side-angle pose
Start at a side angle (warrior two legs), with the right forearm resting on the right thigh and the left arm reaching on a diagonal. Your bicep should be by your ear.
Spin your chest towards the ceiling and draw your navel in. Lift your right arm away from your leg and bring it parallel to the left.
Hold 30-60 seconds before repeating on the other side. Not only is this fantastic for the strength and integration of your side body, but has the added bonus of helping build isometric strength in the legs.
Perform four sets, holding for 30-60 seconds (or 5-10 slow breaths) on each side.
Exercise four: Superman plank crunches
Starting from a strong plank position, reach the right arm forward (bicep by the ear) and lift the left foot off the ground keeping the leg lengthened and engaged.
Maintaining the balance, use an exhale to bring the right elbow to touch the left knee (squeezing through the navel and side body) and an inhale to lengthen back out to the start, repeating 5 to 10 times before switching to the opposite arm and leg.
This is an amazing exercise requiring great concentration and control of both the body and the breath. It’s great for the transverse, rectus, obliques, scapular strength, balance and coordination.
Perform three sets of 5-10 reps each on both sides.
To simplify, allow your big toe and fingertips of the lifted limbs to brush along the mat/floor. It takes away some of the balance element and could give you greater success when you first try it.
Arby Keheli, strength and conditioning coach
Exercise one: hollow hold
Lying flat on the back, from here lift the feet and peel the upper back off the floor. To ensure the core is engaged make sure the lower back is on constant contact with the floor at all times. If the lower back starts to lift bring the knees into a flexed position to reduce the lever length.
Exercise two: Superman hold
Lie flat on the floor with the chest down and arms extended. Think about lengthening the body creating as much distance from the toes to fingertips.
Rotate the wrist so that the thumbs are pointing up to the ceiling. Lift the arms and feet off of the floor engaging the glutes.
Hold this position. If you are struggling bring the arms down to your side with your palms facing down towards the floor.
Exercise three: rotational plank
Start movement in a low-plank position with the chest pushed away from the floor (protraction through the shoulder blades), glutes engaged and weight shifted forward.
Lift the elbow off the floor and rotate the torso upward maintaining a bridge position in the trunk (keeping the ribs away from the floor).
Bring the elbow back down and the torso with it. From here, begin to thread the elbow behind the supporting arm.
Exercise four: tuck crunch
Load initially into a hollow-hold position with arms extended and the legs lifted. Ensure that the lower back is kept on the floor throughout.
Draw the knees into the body while simultaneously drawing the chest towards the knees compressing through the core.
Extend the legs and arms out again into a hollow position ensuring that the lower back stays grounded.
Exercise five: beast shoulder taps
Start in a table top/beast position. The shoulders, elbows and wrists are in line, the back is flat and the hips are stacked directly over the knees.
From this position lift one arm off the floor and touch the opposite shoulder. This movement should be done slowly and the beast position is maintained throughout.
Exercise six: bicycle crunch
Lie flat on your back with the shoulder blade peeled off the floor and the chin tucked into the chest. Draw the opposite elbow into the opposite knee keeping the tension through the core.
Ensure that the lower back remains in contact with the floor for the duration of the movement.
Exercise seven: lateral shoot-through
Start in a tabletop/beast position. The shoulders elbows and wrist are in line, the back is flat and the are hips stacked directly over the knees.
You will then extend the leg and draw the arm back like you are pulling back the string of a bow. Keep the hip close to the ground but lifted, hold for a second and then return to centre back into that beast position.
The lateral shoot-through should be performed slowly with a focus on movement quality.
How to build these into a workout
Do 30 seconds of each of the seven workouts in a row, with ten seconds off in between. Do five rounds of the seven exercises, with 30 seconds in between each round.
George Palmer, personal trainer and fitness instructor
Exercise one: hollow hold
Lie on your back with your legs extended and pressed together and arms extended behind your head.
Exhale as you lift your legs and arms five or six inches off the floor by tightly tensing the abdominal muscles. Making sure shoulder blades are lifted off the ground, core is staying engaged throughout and the lower back is pressed into the mat, imagine you’re sending your belly button towards the floor as you contract the abs.
Hold for 30-45 seconds and slowly come back down to the starting position.
Exercise two: hanging leg raises
Grasp pull-up bar with an overhand grip, keeping hands shoulder-distance apart.
Forcefully breathe out through your belly as you start to contract the abdominals, slowly raising your legs in front of you while keeping them as straight as possible. Shoulders are pulling downwards throughout the movement.
Upper body stays still and shoulders remain directly below the bar as you start to curl the pelvis up by tensing the abs as you get towards the top of the movement – this gives the abs an extra squeeze.
Breathe out as you slowly bring the legs back down in a controlled manner to the starting position, before repeating the move again.
Exercise three: tabletop crunches
Lie on your back, bringing the legs up so that your knees are directly above the hips, with a 90-degree bend at the knees. Make sure the knees are hip-distance apart and feet are pointed with toes coming to touch. Bring the fingertips to touch the side of the head and elbows pointing outwards.
Breathe out as you begin to tense the abdominal muscles, bringing the upper back off the ground, now coming into a crunch position. Keep the neck neutral and shoulders free from tension throughout the exercise.
Pulling from the core muscles, hold at the top for a second or two and slowly make your way back to the starting position to repeat.
Exercise four: high-to-low plank
Come into a high-plank position by bringing the hands to the ground directly below the shoulders. Keep weight in the balls of the feet and hips lifted by bracing the abdominals and glutes. You should have a straight line going from the head, through the hips, down to the ankles.
Breathe in as you bend at your right elbow to lower the forearm down to the ground. As you lean on your right forearm, now do the same with the left arm. You are now in a low-plank position.
Breathe out forcefully as you straighten the right arm again to place the hand below the shoulder – now partially into a high-plank position – then do the same with your left arm to come to the full starting position. Keep the core and glute muscles tight throughout, not letting the hips drop, even during arm movement.
Alternate leading with the left and right arms as you continue to repeat this movement.
Exercise five: starfish crunches
Lie down on your back and extend your arms overhead wider than shoulder-width apart. Spread legs so that feet are also now in line with the hands – you will now resemble a narrow star shape (which is, of course, where the exercise gets its name from).
Now, exhale as you start to simultaneously lift the upper back of the ground and bring one arm and the opposing leg to reach across towards each other – fingertips come to touch just above the foot. Remember to lead with your abdominal muscles by contracting them and keep the lower back grounded throughout the movement.
Hold at the top for a second and then slowly lower the upper back, bringing the arms and legs back to the starting position. Repeat the exercise on the opposite side of the body.
Exercise six: side-plank pulses
Start on your side with feet together – one foot stacked side-on to the other – and elbow directly below the shoulder. Your free hand comes to rest on the hip with elbow facing towards the ceiling, as you tighten your core muscles solidly. You are aiming to have a straight line running from your head, through the hips, down to your ankles.
Now, in your starting position, start to lower your hips towards the ground until they are just off the floor and then drive them up as far as you can.
Bring the hips back down and keep repeating this movement with pace while keeping it controlled by having the core muscles engaged throughout. Once done with the desired amount of reps on this side, repeat movement evenly on the other side of the body.
How to turn these into a workout:
Try doing two rounds in total, with 45 seconds on each move and 15 seconds’ rest in between – then, one-and-a-half minutes’ rest between each full round. Focus on the left side of the body for the first round during moves such as the side plank pulses, and then change to target the right side of the body for your second round. You can also reverse the order of the exercises to start on the side-plank pulses and finish on the hollow holds in the second round (this can prevent it from feeling too repetitive).
Remember to do a five-minute warm-up at the beginning with exercises that will get your heart rate up and dynamic stretches targeting core muscles (such as torso twists). Cool down for five minutes at the end. This should in total equate to a time-efficient 25-minute session. If you want an even spicier workout, do the moves for longer and/or take out some rest time in between moves – this works visa versa to make it easier.