4 Awesome Exercises for a Strong Core and Defined Abs!

Do you want strong abs, a stable core and that elusive 6-pack? Well then check out these 4 dynamic and fun exercises to help you do just that!

The exercises below are intermediate and advanced abs/core exercises geared to help you take your core strength to new levels but not meant for anyone still in the early stages of fitness training or the injury recovery process

There are a LOT of exercises to choose from when it comes to low back pain recovery, injury prevention and developing strong abdominal muscles. Which ones you choose will depend on your current fitness level, your injury history – especially low back injuries, the types of exercises you enjoy doing, your sports-specific and fitness goals as well as the types of fitness equipment you routinely have access to.

4 Intermediate/Advanced Abs / Core Exercises

1.) Renegade Row

Benefits: This exercise is one of the best full-body and core exercises around. When done properly, the deep abdominal, scapular and spine stabilizer muscles work together to create stability throughout the entire body. The less movement of the pelvis and over-arching of the low back means that the TVA, Multifiti and Internal Obliques are doing their job of creating stability in the torso. This is a very functional exercise because it replicates the types of movements and muscle recruitments we do every day.

Caution: As with any advanced abdominal and full-body exercise, this one demands excellent form for safety and maximize its potential benefits. It can be amazing for taking your injury rehabilitation to new levels but it could set you back significantly if done without optimal form.

Proper Form:

  • Keep your belly button drawn in at all times, always focussing on Transverse Abdominus engagement.
  • Be sure not to let your low back arch excessively.
  • When pulling your arm back in a row, control the pelvis, not letting it move much if at all. The less movement there is in the pelvis means the muscles are working harder and better to create stability which is the purpose of this exercise.
  • Be aware of your head, neck and shoulder positioning, making an effort not to look up, arch your neck and shrug your shoulders.

2.) Ab Rollouts

Benefits: This exercise is advanced and needs to be done with impeccable form to avoid potentially serious injuries to the shoulder, neck and low back. When done properly Ab Rollouts are an excellent way to strength the deep and superficial abs as well as the shoulder stabilizers. The further out one roles the harder it gets.

Caution: This exercise needs to be done with pin-point form or it can cause an enormous amount of compression to the low back as well as stress to the shoulder joint. If you are new to this exercise or have a history of low back and shoulder-related injuries or have had neck injuries in the past, please do this exercise with a competent fitness professional. To avoid injury you can build your way up to rolling all the way out by simply starting by rolling a quarter of the way out and slowly, carefully increasing the distance with time, repetition and practice. Warm up with other shoulder and abdominal exercises first.

Proper Form:

  • Keep your belly button drawn in at all times, always focussing on Transverse Abdominus engagement. This is the most import cue as it relates to protecting your low back and maximizing the purpose of the exercise. If you’re not sure what that means, I recommend finding an experienced personal trainer or Pilates instructor who can help you with this,
  • Keep your shoulder blades drawn back (retracted) throughout the exercise. Also be sure not to let the shoulders excessively shrug.
  • Always look at the floor and do not hyperextend your neck.
  • Build up to the full rollout carefully. Try several reps by going down part way or spend several workouts doing so until you gradually build up the strength, neuromuscular coordination and body awareness to go the full distance.

3.) Side Plank

Benefits: Like the traditional plank, the side plank is a safe and effective exercise for building strong abs. It is relatively simple to do and can be modified for different fitness levels. This exercise focusses specifically on the oblique muscles as well as the collection of muscles that stabilize the shoulder.

Caution: While the side plank is a safe and straightforward exercise, caution should be taken if you have had a history of shoulder and low back injuries. Use modifications a needed and keep in mind that this can be a great exercise to incorporate into the secondary stages of the injury recovery process.

Proper Form:

  • The elbow should be positioned directly under the shoulder.
  • The weight-bearing shoulder should remain stable and not collapse.
  • The body should be in a straight line from head to toes. Make sure that the legs are not angled forward in relation to your torso because this may cause overactivity of the hip flexors.
  • Use the free hand for weight-bearing as needed.
  • Keep one foot slightly in front of the other on the ground to make the exercise easier than if the legs are stacked.

4.) Superman/Windmill on Exercise Ball

Benefits: This series of exercise is excellent for improving posture, developing strong abs, mid back and shoulder blade muscles as well as helps improve balance.

Caution: As with any exercise, especially intermediate and advanced core stabilization exercises, be smart. If you have acute low back or neck pain, hold off on this one unless you are being supervised by a personal trainer with corrective exercise training or an injury recovery therapist of some kind such as an athletic trainer or physical therapist.

Proper Form:

  • Try not to let the ball move at all. The less movement, the better because it means you’re muscles are integrating well to create core stability and balance.
  • Keep your belly button drawn in at all times, always focussing on Transverse Abdominus engagement.
  • Be sure not to let your low back arch excessively.
  • Try not to look up, arch your neck and shrug your shoulders.

Hard Core! What is it?

Abdominal muscles, core muscles, core training…these terms and like them get thrown around frequently and they mean different things to different people. My viewpoint of the core and ab musculature isn’t the only one out there nor is it the final word. It’s just how I like to conceptualize and approach exercise selection and programing.

Abdominal Muscles Vs Core Muscles:

Not all core muscles are abdominal muscles but all 4 abdominal muscles are core muscles.

There are 4 primary abdominal muscles:

  • Rectus Abdominus: This is the 6 pack muscle that so many love to look out and aspire to have. It’s an important and strong muscle but can actually cause trouble when it comes to developing core stability and a healthy, pain-free low back. In fact, overactivity of this muscle can help de-activate some of the more important core stabilization muscles such as the TVA.
  • External Obliques: This muscle is a powerful rotator of the spine, pelvis and ribs. Any movement requiring a lot of rotation such as tennis, baseball, martial arts and many others involves this muscle.
  • Internal Obliques: This muscle is deeper than the external obliques and is also a powerful rotator of the spine, pelvis and ribs. Any movement requiring a lot of rotation such as tennis, baseball, martial arts and many others involves this muscle.
  • Transversus Abdominus (TA or TVA): This is one of the most important muscles in the body because of its direct and primary role of creating and maintaining lumbar spine stability. It is the deepest of the four abdominal muscles and it forms a cummerbund of sorts around the abdomen.

The 4 primary abdominal muscles described above are what many people mean when they say “core”. I view the “core” in a broader sense. In my opinion the core of the body includes all of the muscles, bones, connective tissue and joints that criss cross their way between the the pelvis and shoulder blades.

So as the exercises videos above demonstrate, “core” exercises don’t have to be just ones that isolate the abdominals. To the contrary, they should be exercises that integrate abdominal muscles with the many small and large back muscles that move and stabilize the entire spine, pelvis and shoulder blades.

Using this broader framework, here are my list of core muscles:

  • Abdominal Muscles: Rectus Abdominus, External and Internal Obliques, Transversus Abdominus.
  • Pelvic Muscles: Glute Maximus and Medius, Pelvic Floor.
  • Back Muscles: Latissimus Dorsi, Quadratus Lumborum, Erector Spinae, Multifitae, Thoracolumbar Fascia.
  • Shoulder Blade Muscles: Lower and Middle Traps, Rhomboid, Erector Spinae.

Sit-ups, Leg Lifts and Crunches Aren’t Enough!

With all of this said, my take-home message is that building a strong low back and getting a 6-pack aren’t the same thing. In fact, doing hundreds of sit-ups and crunches can weaken your deeper abdominal muscles by making them less active. In addition, doing leg lifts constantly will jack up your hp flexors which can contribute to and prolong back pain because the pelvis gets pulled forward and the low back gets compressed.

So try the exercises above once you’ve gotten past the acute phase of low back pain recovery and after you you’ve mastered many of the more basic low back and abdominal exercises.

Getting that 6-Pack or Flat Stomach Isn’t so Simple

There is a common misunderstanding about how to shed stomach fat and get those washboard abs. In short, the issue is that it is not possible for the body to spot burn fat, meaning you can’t control where the body burns fat cells just by exercising the muscles in that area. So wile doing crunches, planks, rotations and any number of abdominal and core exercises will help produce more lean and visible abs, burning the fat that often cover and surround them is a more systemic process.