With all the attention paid to core strength and stability – whether you’re an athlete, regular exerciser or rehabilitating from an injury – popular, effective exercises have expanded and changed over time. What hasn’t changed is the quest for beautiful abs – which require a strong core and consistent performance of a variety of exercises that challenge the center of the body.
The core muscles consist of the abdominal muscle groups and the back (erector spinae and quadratus lumborum). The abdominals are comprised of the:
- Rectus abdominus – This is the washboard or 6-pack that lies on top, and it serves to bend the torso forward.
- Internal and external obliques – These two muscle groups run alongside the waist like sets of pockets, and they are responsible for bending the torso side-to-side and twisting or rotating the waist.
- Transverse abdominus – This is a deep horizontal band that functions like a girdle to hold in the belly and stabilize the body.
If you are after amazing abs, it’s important that you do a variety of exercises that sufficiently tax each muscle group, which means you should incorporate flexion, lateral flexion and rotation. Performing hundreds of standard crunches won’t get you the results you are after.
One of the most effective abdominal and core exercises is the plank, which targets the transverse abdominus with an isometric contraction. Although the torso isn’t moving, this muscle is working hard to stabilize and hold up the center of the body while gravity pulls it down. Once you’ve performed one correctly, you’ll understand how challenging it is – which is significantly harder than it looks.
The plank has multiple variations to impose different stressors on the muscle and add variety for better results. Try the following options:
- Traditional plank — Get in a push-up position with your hands narrow under your shoulders and feet together or slightly apart. Pull the navel in and keep the head and neck in line with the spine, hips and legs. Don’t let the belly sag toward the floor or pike up the hips toward the ceiling like a downward dog. Hold for as long as you can maintain good form, rest and repeat.
- Forearm plank – This is just like a traditional plank, but support yourself on the forearms instead of your hands, with a straight line from head to heels.
- Moving plank – Known as dolphin pose in yoga, start in a forearm plank hold, then raise your hips toward the ceiling (like in downward dog). Without moving your feet, lift and lower the hips to fold the body in half.
- Single-leg plank – In traditional or forearm plank, raise the right leg straight from the glute 6 inches off the floor and hold. Lower and repeat with the left leg.
- Side plank – With the right hand down and the right knee down, extend the left arm straight up toward the ceiling and the left leg straight out. Stack the shoulders and flatten the back. For more challenge, extend the right leg as well. Hold and repeat on the other side.
- Side plank with rotating crunch – From modified or regular side plank, with right hand on mat, place left hand behind head and extend left leg. Twist from waist to rotate left shoulder down toward waist, then open and repeat before switching sides.
- Reverse plank – Sitting with your legs extended together in front of you, place the hands by the hips with the fingertips pointing toward the legs. Squeeze the legs together and lift the hips; hold while keeping the head and neck in line with the spine.