The Best Core Exercises To Build and Reveal Your Six Pack

The best core exercises—a super guide to abs, obliques, and a rock-solid core

Heading to the beach soon for your vacation? Today we’re going to be covering everything about getting a six-pack that not only look great but help you move through life like an athlete while protecting your lower back and spine.

Have you ever wondered why the six-pack look so damn good? Well, it’s because it shows vibrant and visible health in a split-second judgement. When you’ve got a six-pack, someone at the beach could look at you and know:

  • You’re especially lean, which plainly shows that you’re physically active, eat well, and aren’t sick or anything.
  • You’re muscular enough which shows that you’re strong, have time to work out, and can afford eating lots of protein and good food.
  • If your whole core (abs, obliques, serratus, spinal erectors) also look well developed and balanced, that will show that you are mobile, athletic, and won’t easily get injured. You’ll look robust and effortlessly strong (instead of looking like those weirdos who don’t work out but do 100 sit-ups a day.)

What’s inside?

Chapter 1: The two different journeys to getting a six-pack
Chapter 2: What the “core” really is
Chapter 3: Why you need a strong and stable core
Chapter 4: Who should be doing core training (and who shouldn’t)
Chapter 5: How to get a six-pack if you’re skinny
Chapter 6: How to get a six-pack if you’re fatter
Chapter 7: 4 steps to train your core for the best results
Chapter 8: The best scoring ab, oblique, and stability building exercises
Bonus chapter: 3 weird tricks for the advanced


The journey to getting a six-pack

Your journey begins with we’re you’re starting from. Most people looking to build a great core with a visible six-pack are starting off either skinny or they’re muscular enough but are too fat.

Skinny folk often don’t have a strong and muscular core (if they do, they’d likely consider themselves as being “fit” and not skinny.) For skinny and skinny-fat folk, they will get a six-pack by lifting weights and eating well to build lots of mass, working on their abs and obliques, and keeping the body fat in check as they get bigger.

Average guys who are bigger but fatter will often already have bigger ab and oblique muscles, but you can’t see their abs under the layer of fat they have. And they might still benefit from some overall core training, especially if they’re not that active, just for becoming stronger, maintaining good back health, rounding out any imbalances in their core, and developing better posture to stand tall. They will get a six-pack by lifting weights and eating properly to burn fat and might also want to do some extra ab and oblique work.

So there’s two parts to getting a six-pack:

  1. Building up your core—specifically the abs and obliques.
  2. Leaning out enough for those abs to shine through.
The Best Core Exercises Like The L-Sit hit the abs and the obliques

What is the “core?”

There are a million and one definitions for the core:

Many people think the core is just the famous and “sexy” abs (rectus abdominis) and the v-shape at the bottom of your abs—your obliques.

But it’s so much more than that.

There are way too many definitions out there. This is partially because there’s a lot of bad information out there. The other reason is that the core is extremely complex (big surprise.)

So it’s easy to oversimplify depending on what point you’re trying to get across. We want to make sure you’ve got everything you need to understand how it works, so you can make better judgements of what kind of core training you want to do (and what kinds to avoid.)

So, the core is a catch-all term for working out the hundreds of muscles all around the middle of your body, usually called the trunk. Your core’s main job is to protect your spine.

Aside from your abs and obliques, your core will also include your:

  • Diaphragm. You use your diaphragm to breath and pressure inside your body to bring stability to your core. When you do proper ab bracing before a big lift, it’ll help make your core bulletproof and prevent back pain.
  • Spinal erectors. These run up your spine from your butt to your skull. They straighten and rotate your back and help to bulletproof your spine.
  • Your butt/glutes. These big movers help generate force up to your core.
  • The pelvic floor and hip girdle. These areas are made up of a couple dozen small muscles that we won’t really be discussing more in this guide.

Here’s what you need to know. The core can be simplified down to three things. And when you know how they work, you can train them the way they’re designed to work.

  1. Stabilizer muscles
  2. Mobilizer muscles
  3. Load transfer muscles

Stabilizers help to control movement and bring sturdiness and integrity to the spine and other areas of the body. They also help on the eccentric (lowering) part of the exercises. The main examples of stabilizer muscles in your core are the obliques and the spinalis (a part of the spinal erectors on your back.)

The mobilizers are usually the ones you can see that attach the core to the other parts of the body like your arms and shoulders, and legs. These are the ones that can produce lots of force and power. (study) They also can help a bit with stability in the concentric (lifting) part, and they can also act as a shock absorber. The top examples of this are the abs (rectus abdominis) and the iliocostalis (another part of your spinal erectors, right beside the spinalis).

The load transfer muscles are the big muscles that connect to the core. Think of things like the butt, lats, traps, hip adductors, and your chest and shoulders. Even though the transfer muscles are separate from the trunk of your body, they’re a critical part of the core because they attach to it and can help to stiffen it. (We sourced this section on this incredible academic review.)

Why should I care about the rest of the core when I just want visible abs?

It’s nice to have abs today, but it’s even better to have them tomorrow too. When you train your body correctly, you’ll get into a better posture that will allow you to stay pain-free so you can keep your abs.

Plus, if you’ve ever seen an unbalanced body, it just looks strange. Someone with great abs but no obliques, a weak lower back, and no glutes will look like a guy who doesn’t actually work out but simply does 100 sit-ups every morning. Doesn’t look so hot from being athletic—it only looks vain instead.

Vibrant health is what looks awesome, you can’t fake it. Train your body correctly, and your diaphragm will help you stand taller, your butt will help prevent lower back pain while holding your pants up without a belt, and your body will look healthy and natural while moving effortlessly.

Why having a strong, functional, and stable core matters

Injuries are usually because there’s something not working right in your core. Throwing your back out, low-back pain throughout the day, hernias, etc.

If you’re in a bad posture—you’ll get injured more.

If you’ve got weak core muscles—you’ll get injured more.

And because your core touches everything you do, it affects other problems too. In one study, they found that women with knee injuries had a problem with the core and it was putting the knee in a bad position. In fact, each degree off that the core was misplaced, meant a 290% more increase for a knee injury! (study)

And in another study, researchers made firefighters go through a core strengthening program. In that year, total injuries were down 42%, and many of the injuries that still happened weren’t as serious, and they healed much faster. (study)

So we’re not just talking about getting injured while being active, but even just by living your daily life. So to protect yourself it’s key to:

  • Get your body into a good, neutral position. In other words—fix up your posture.
  • Develop (or keep) good core mobility. And become agile and graceful in all the ways your body moves.
  • Build up your core power and strength output.
  • Build up your core stability endurance. The endurance strength might be the most important part of core health.

Who should be doing core training?

Total beginners

Beginners should be doing core training because they haven’t properly developed core muscle recruitment, endurance, or strength. And if these beginners are like the rest of us, they’ll probably have been sitting a lot and will need to do some postural drills to get into a better position.

Athletes and active people

Athletes should be doing core training to help reduce injuries from their sport. Building up a bigger, stronger core will also help with “shock absorbing.” I think about the insane story of Miranda Olydrod, a famous crossfitter, who got into a car accident when another car ran the lights. The doctors were first amazed at how uninjured she was, and she got her hand cast and an x-ray on her neck. They sent her home. During a checkup on her hand, the doctors informed her they had been trying to get a hold of her, leaving over 50 voicemails. Unbeknownst to her, her neck was broken, and she had been walking around for weeks—even hiking and working out! Her strong core and stabilizer muscles throughout her body had been keeping her neck properly in place, preventing any more serious damage.

Women

Women should be doing functional core training for back and core health and functional movement patterns. However, they may not want to do “size” (hypertrophy) training on their abs and obliques. This would make their midsection look bulkier, more substantial, and perhaps seen as less feminine. Some women like the look of abs, and so they can try and add in some extra size work, however, even if they got their abs pretty big, they might not still have visible abs without getting into an unhealthily low body fat percentage due to female fat storage patterns.

Pregnant women

Pregnant women should always talk to their medical professional first before doing anything training related. Realistically they won’t be able to do much core training given their growing baby. But Dr. Schoenfeld had published a recommendation in this article (article) that those who are in a perfect bill of health, even as late as the third trimester could do a plank, bird dog, and side plank. But we’ve also heard that some specialists don’t recommend to do any loading on the core like that. It’s just a good idea to take this up with your medical professional first though. Seriously. (You could print out Dr. Schoenfeld’s article and bring it to them to see what they think is appropriate for you.)

Women who are post-pregnancy

Your abs can separate after birth (called diastasis recti), and your pelvic floor might need some attention. It’s best to work in person with a physiotherapist, particularly one specializing in postpartum training. Get them to help you get fixed up and cleared for general training.

Those with a bad back or a history of back injury like a herniated disc

This is unfortunately a super common problem. Lumbar disc herniation is the most common thing that prevents people under the age of 45 from doing being active (study).

Dr. Stuart McGill, a professor emeritus of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, says that it’s not often weight-loading but rather repeatedly doing spinal flexion (spine rounding inwards) that causes the risk of herniation. He’s not a big fan of crunches for this reason. Over time, the discs slowly have their tissues injured. This is what causes an unstable disc. Then once you’ve got an unstable disc, anything can happen. This is how people can throw their backs out with as little as a sneeze or picking up a pen off the ground. After an injury, it’s pretty common for your body to make a new movement pattern to get around the pain. So part of the solution to become pain-free is to teach your body how to do the proper movement again and build up stability. (You can read Dr. McGill’s free guide here, but if you suffer from back pain you may want to buy one of his books or programs from BackFitPro.)

Some exercises that might help build up ab size might not be good for back health. So we need to be careful about which exercises we use that will allow us to get a strong, stable core that also looks great.

What’s the point of huge abs if your lower-back chronically aches? The good news is that it doesn’t need to be an either-or situation. You can have a healthy core with great looking abs.


How to get a six-pack if you’re skinny

If you’re skinny-skinny, let’s be real, your six-pack doesn’t count if we can see your ribs too. (No hate, I used to be this skinny too.) Even if you’re skinny-fat, you’ll be in a similar route.

You’ll need to become muscular in a balanced and athletic way first. Then once you’ve got a strong and functional core that’s in the right position, you can work on building up your abs and obliques.

Your main challenge will be gaining anywhere from 30–50 pounds of lean mass. No small feat.

If you want a bigger breakdown of the steps, you can read this article I wrote over at Bony to Beastly on how to gain weight if you’re skinny. But here are the bare bones in terms of a formula for a skinny guy trying to build lean mass are:

  • Eat 0.8–0.1g of protein per ideal bodyweight pound every single day. This is a boosted amount that you can learn more at our protein powder article.
  • Eat a bit more food than you need to live to help your body build muscle. This is called a calorie surplus. This is probably the most difficult part for a skinny guy, and he’ll need all the stomach-stuffing tips he can get. Shane has a great article on how to eat more here. (If you’re skinny-fat, you can skip this step, you’ve already got a surplus built into your body with the extra fat.)
  • Lift weights at least 3x a week. Lifting weights tells your body to build muscle, along with a lot of protein and calories. It’ll also tell your body where to build muscle. You can’t expect to get fearsome shoulders, chest, and back while squatting. (Squatting has its place, but make sure the program you’re doing will end up making you look the way you want and not like a T-Rex.)
  • Get enough quality sleep (around 7–9 hours.) You need sleep to recover properly to build muscle.

How much muscle will I need to build?

You’ll need to get into the upper end of the health/normal range of the BMI chart for your height while still being lean. This will let you be optimally muscular for your height, which will make it easier to get lean enough to have abs.

For example, if you’re 150 pounds at 6’2, and you’re 12% bodyfat (pretty lean), you’ve got 18 pounds of fat on you to live. If you build up to 180 pounds of lean mass, you could still be holding onto 18 pounds of fat on your body, but now you’re 10% body fat. So even though you have the same amount of body fat, it’ll be more stretched across your whole body, making you look even leaner and more ripped. It’ll be easier to stay that lean when you’re bigger and more muscular (aside from just looking bigger and stronger, which has its own benefits.)

An example of a man getting a six-pack who’s 6’2 and underweight at 140lb at 10% body fat

The first thing this skinny guy does is to start doing a 3x full-body lifting program. He starts eating 1g of protein per ideal bodyweight pound—so he’s eating 180g of protein every day. Then he’s eating more frequently with a lot of snacks, drinking liquid calories, and drinking a massive workout shake with plenty of protein and maybe even carbs (like maltodextrin.)

He aims to gain around 1-2 pound per week. As he’s underweight, the gains come on quickly, and he gains 30 pounds in 16 weeks of training and eating well. He’s now 170 pounds and is in the middle of the healthy BMI category. He’s no longer extremely skinny looking, he’s lost the visible ribs and looks lean and fit. He’s probably feeling energetic and has a flat and toned stomach. He’s probably sitting around 13% in terms of body fat, with about 75% of his gains being lean mass. Even though he’s lean enough to see his abs faintly, he could still get his abs bigger and still get leaner.

Ultimately, he’ll need to get to the upper end of the healthy body weight for his health and end up around 180 to have abs, sitting at around 10% body fat. But because when you build muscle, it’ll never be completely lean, he’ll have to overshoot a bit then do a cut to burn off a bit of fat.

So he goes on another lean bulk and gains another 20 pounds to bring him up to 190 pounds. These final gains will take a little longer as he wanted to minimize his fat gains. It took him 6 months of training and eating well. Now he’s probably about 15% body fat with 28 pounds of total body-fat on his body.

Now he wants to drop 10 pounds of fat to get down to 10%. Burning fat is a nice and welcomed change from eating at all hours of the day. This previous skinny guy may even enjoy the mental clarity from switching to intermittent fasting to get into a calorie deficit. Still, it may take him a bit more focus on his final stretch. Maybe he decides to start lifting 4 or 5 times a week, and he’s doing more focused core and ab work over the week. Maybe he’s putting more effort into hitting his protein goals consistently—especially on days that he’s resting from training.

Then one morning he steps on the scale, and he’s hit 180, reaching 10% body fat. He’s got visible abs and looks ripped. He’s now achieved his goal, and he doesn’t need to be cutting anymore. He adds a few hundred more calories back into his day. But he keeps up with the training and eating well because of how much more energetic he feels, how his strength brings ease to his day, and because people comment on how ripped he is (instead of how skinny he is and that he should go eat a burger.) Now that he’s succeeded, he can now move the nutrition and training in his life to the backburner and switch to maintenance and focus on something else in his life.

Lock your core down tight and you can work your core in a number of different exercises.

 How to get a six-pack if you’re overweight

You’ve likely already got big enough ab muscles, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be trying to develop a stronger and more functional core with a better and more naturally effortless look. So you’ll want to be doing some sort of ab training (which we’ll cover below.)

But your main challenge will be burning fat and holding onto your muscle—this is called cutting. You’re not “losing weight,” which would include muscle, you’re burning fat or cutting.

Unfortunately, there’s really no such thing as “spot-fat reduction” except in extreme circumstances that don’t apply to us normal folk. So you can’t just do a bunch of crunches, get the abs feeling warm, and think that you’ll be able to see them.

You will need to burn fat everywhere, of which the fat on the stomach and lower abs are the second last place to go. (The last place is typically the lower back, but who cares about low back striations.)

We’ll write an evidence-based article that will expand on this more fully, but the absolute bare bones to cutting would be something like:

  • Eat 0.8–0.1g of protein per ideal body weight pound every single day. If you’re 220 pounds and you want to get down to 180, you’d eat 144g–180g—your target bodyweight. (This recommendation is a boosted amount, you can learn more at our protein powder article.)
  • Eat less food than you need to live to burn fat. This is called a calorie deficit. You can adjust these by eating less or by exercising more—or more likely both.
  • Lift weights at least 3x a week. (Lifting weights is better than cardio for fat loss, plus it’ll remind your body that it needs to keep that muscle as it’s looking for ways to stop losing weight.)
  • Get enough quality sleep (around 7–9 hours.) Sleeping enough is necessary not just to recover from working out but also to help burn fat (study)

It’s trickier than that, of course. Otherwise, fat-loss wouldn’t be such a problem.

For example, your appetite will play into things. Eating 300 calories of a croissant and eating 300 calories of apples? A croissant you can eat in a few seconds, and won’t really remove any feelings of hunger. For one croissant, you could eat around 3 apples in terms of providing an equal amount of energy (calories.) The apples would be full of water, fibre, and other healthy micronutrients. So you’d feel way more full from the fibre and chewing, and it’d be better for you. Allowing you to feel a bit perkier, and maybe even move some more.

Even how many meals you eat a day could be the difference between if you succeed or not. If you don’t like counting calories, just switching to a 16:8 intermittent fasting lifestyle could help you naturally get into a calorie deficit to burn fat. A 16:8 fast is when you only eat for 8 hours of the day and fast 16 hours a day. Now, this isn’t that crazy as everyone fasts a little bit as they sleep for 8 hours, so we’re just making the fast longer. A common version of this is not to eat breakfast, have your first meal at 12:00pm as lunch, and you can continue to eat until 8:00pm.

How much fat will I need to burn?

There’s a difference between having a healthy amount of body fat and seeing abs. You can be healthy and have a flat stomach, and still not see abs. Abs are more about obvious health, making no mistake that you’re lean. So it can be difficult for most people to achieve this (which is also why they look remarkable.)

So, once you cut down to below 20% body fat, you should be in a healthy and normal range for BMI. Then most people can see faint outlines of their abs around 15% body fat. This is pretty optimal in terms of attractiveness to women, but still no visibly defined abs.

Once you get down to about 12%, many people would say you have abs. They’re easy to see, but they’re still a little soft feeling.

Getting down to 9–10% is where your abs will likely be hard looking and hard to the touch. This is often about as low as you can go without experiencing some side health effects due to not having enough body fat. This is sort of the quintessential athletic body, where you’re optimally healthy still while looking very, very lean and strong.

Many fitness models will get dip down lower than 8% for a photo shoot which would be unhealthy to maintain, and then pop back up after. (Many of them are on—sometimes illegal—pharmaceuticals which would help them get even leaner and more muscular.)

An example of a man who’s 6’2 and overweight at 215lb getting abs

The first thing this guy does is to start doing a 3x full-body lifting program. He starts eating 1g of protein per ideal bodyweight pound—so he’s eating 180g of protein every day. Then he’s doing intermittent fasting to make it easier to get into a calorie deficit without sacrificing his dinners with friends and family or calorie counting.

He aims to lose a maximum of 1% of your bodyweight per week, so he aims to lose around 1–2 pounds per week.

The first 25 pounds he lost over 16 weeks of training and eating well. He’s now 190 pounds and is in the healthy BMI category. He’s lost the love handles, he’s lost the belly fat. He’s probably feeling amazing and has a flat and toned stomach. He’s probably sitting around 15–16% in terms of body fat which is perfectly fine for attractiveness, but he wants to go for abs.

He’ll probably need to lose around 10 more pounds to get down to 180 to have abs, sitting at around 10% body fat. These final pounds will take a little longer to achieve and a bit more effort and attention to get there. Maybe he’s had to start lifting 4 or 5 times a week (and he’s doing more focused core and ab work.) Maybe he’s putting more effort into hitting his protein goals consistently—especially on days that he’s resting from training. Maybe he’s decided to take a 15 minute fasted walk in the morning.

Finally, the day comes where he hits 180, and he’s now 9% body fat. He’s got visible abs and looks ripped. Once he gets down to his ideal body fat range, he doesn’t need to be in a calorie deficit anymore. So he adds a few more calories back into his day. He’s come to love the training because it brings mental clarity, he has more energy throughout the day, and he’s feeling confident. But now he can count this goal as done and move his focus onto something else in his life while continuing to eat well and training as an effortless habit.


Training to develop fearsome-looking abs, obliques, and spinal erectors

Now that you know the path to getting a six-pack has a nutritional element, what should your training look like?

It’s not just having huge abs that look amazing, it’s the balanced, functional, and athletic physique that looks amazing. Six-pack abs are just a shortcut to describe this physique.

Having huge abs but a saggy chest, small back, and chicken legs—well, that isn’t going to look great. It’ll just look like someone did 100 sit-ups every morning for a year. It’s not a sign of total health which looks attractive. It’s a sign of an obsession with abs (which, let’s be real, isn’t going to be attractive.)

Step 1: Lift weights with a periodized powerbuilding program and get closer to the end goal

Many popular weight lifting guides like Stronglifts are actually barbell strength-oriented (and still not optimal for that as it’s pretty minimalist). That means your body won’t be getting strong in all directions, you’ll be doing too much leg-work (and looking more like a T-Rex), and you’ll be missing out on the muscle-building gains of doing extra isolation sets after heavy lifting.

Research shows that you need both heavy lifting (lower reps) and lighter lifting (higher reps) for maximum muscle gains and size.

Powerbuilding is a term that mixes in both powerlifting and bodybuilding concepts. Then you’d want one tailored for you as a man since men will want more of an upper-body, arms, and abs focus (where typically women like to be more balanced looking without bulky looking abs and with a bit more hip-focus for a larger butt.)

#Step 2: Do warm-ups with exercises that restore your neutral posture

Many of us in the modern age have something called anterior pelvic tilt. This is when the pelvis rounds forward. The body compensates by rounding the upper back and sticking the neck out (forward head syndrome.) Most of us get it because we’ve been sitting too long and our bodies’ try to adapt for sitting (instead of standing.)

There are a few reasons why getting your posture right matters for getting a strong core and six-pack.

  • First, it doesn’t look all too good to have wonky posture. It’s one thing to be muscular and lean, but you don’t give off the signals of being robust when your posture looks like you could crumble at any moment. It’s really signaling to someone that you sit 12 hours a day, then hit the gym for an hour.
  • Second, when the pelvis tilts forward, this stretches out the abs so it can’t contract as well since they’re in a weak position. Similarly, it compresses the lower back muscles, so they can’t contract and fire as well. If you can’t engage the abs well, you won’t get bigger abs because the training won’t be hitting them properly. And if you can’t get your lower back muscles to do their part, you might be due for a visit to painsville.
  • Third, if you get into the right spot, where your posture is “neutral,” then your core can work when it’s supposed to. You can challenge your core when doing any movement, even curls!

Fixing your posture will take some time. Sometimes it will even require your bone to change it’s positioning due to the muscles tugging on them in a new way. So it’s key to start working on your posture as you start lifting, that way when you get lean enough, this won’t be as bad of an issue anymore.

Plus, if you do postural warm-ups, you should even get better muscular gains (through better muscle activation) and rounder and fuller looking muscles due to better mobility.

Here’s a simple one to help with restoring proper posture and better muscle recruitment before you lift:

90/90 Knee Squeeze:

Step 3: Once you’re on the final stretch and have a developed and athletic body with a strong core, get a program that is designed for dedicated ab and oblique training

If you’re skinny, there’s no point in doing a ton of size training for your abs if you need to get bigger everywhere.

If you’re overweight, there’s no point of doing a ton of size training for your abs if you need to lean out to see them.

But once you’re on that final stretch, you’re strong and athletic and lean, now you can hold the rest of your body at maintenance, and switch to putting your ab training at the forefront. You’ll be putting them to some serious work now.

How many sets should I do for optimal results?

MRV is a technical term for maximum recoverable volume. Volume is how many sets you’ve done totalled up over the week.

So let’s say that right now you’re doing 2 sets of ab wheel roll-outs every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, your total ab volume would be 6 sets.

The incredible elite coaching team over at Renaissance Periodization put the MRV for abs at around 25 sets per week. Now keep in mind, that this is the maximum. Most people wouldn’t be able to recover after that many sets and would progressively get weaker. And, to get the maximum size and muscle gains every single week, you’d want to build up to that.

So let’s say over 6 weeks, you might do something like:

  • Week 1: 10 sets
  • Week 2: 14 sets
  • Week 3: 18 sets
  • Week 4: 22 sets
  • Week 5: 25 sets
  • Deload: Do like 4-5 sets over the week. (This deload is when you’ll grow the most because your body has a chance to recover so don’t skip this!)

And how many reps should I do?

Your core will get heavy loading with your bigger compound lifts like chin-ups, bench press, deadlifts, and squats.

Then you’ll be adding in more direct volume with lighter loading in the range of 8–20 reps. This will not only help with size, but it’ll help you stick with pristine form throughout every rep.

If the loading is too heavy, your form can crumble and put you at risk of getting back injuries or make an old injury flare up again. If you go too light and start doing 30+ reps, you’re not loading heavy enough for ideal size gains, plus your form may crumble as you push past what you can endure with perfect form.

The extremes on both sides are bad. A one-rep max of cable crunches or a 10-minute plank will both put you at risk for injury because you’re going too heavy or too long.

Step 4: Choose the best exercises that’ll work for you and develop all the parts of the core

What does “best” mean? Well, we’d say the best exercises…

  • enhance the way that you move and work with the way the body naturally moves
  • are efficient and target the right areas for balanced growth
  • are ones that limit the risk of a back injury (this matters even if you have no back pain because we want to keep it that way)

The Best Core Exercises

We’ll be looking at some data from Dr Bret Contreras. He did some EMG research to see what exercises worked the abs, internal obliques, external obliques, and the lumbar area of the back. He ranked the exercises with a score and wrote about it on T-Nation.

EMG measures the electrical activity sent to the muscles from the nervous system. The higher the activity, the more force that the body is trying to produce. The more force used, the better the exercise. Below we’ve included his peak EMG scores. (I also want to give a link out to Dr Contreras to his main site too, since he produces such excellent content. He has a great article here for advanced core training strategies.)

Best exercises for working the the abs, obliques, and spinal erectors all at once:

Bodyweight Chin-Up

EMG Score: 461 Abs (this was the highest scoring ab exercise), 61 Obliques

We love the weighted chin-up since it’ll help get you a huge back, nice biceps, and develop your core without risking your back. This is because your core is trying to prevent your lower back from arching.

Dr Contreras was shocked because the chin-up beat out every single ab exercise. Not only is it better than any other ab exercise but because it’s anti-extension training, it not only won’t hurt your back, but it’ll teach you how to maintain a neutral spine to protect your back.

Below is Marco teaching the chin-up. The only thing wrong is that Marco said the belt would help work the abs more—which even went against Dr Contreras’ expectations. And while the weighted chin-ups still work the abs, Dr. Contreras found that the weighted chin-up with a belt actually worked the abs a little less compared to the bodyweight chin-up.

50lb Turkish Get-Up

EMG Score: Abs 133, Obliques 191 (this was the highest scoring oblique exercise)

While it didn’t score as the top in any specific area, it was the best exercise to hit all areas of the core. This means that it will be an excellent foundational exercise for building up your core to move naturally, gracefully, and like an athlete. It’s an exercise that will take some mastery, but as you get better at it, you’ll realize how much better it makes you move.

Best exercises for hitting the abs:

The top ab exercises were the chin-up and get-up. In terms of something more isolating, the next top exercises were:

  • Ab Wheel (abs 143, obliques 97)
  • RKC Plank (115 abs, 104 obliques)
  • Hanging Leg Raise (Abs 300, external obliques 163)
  • Weighted Swiss Ball Crunch (Abs 231, Obliques 96)

Best exercises for building up the obliques:

The best exercise for obliques wasn’t the dumbbell side bend, side plank, or the wood chop like many would guess. That’s because the oblique fibres mainly run up and down so any exercise that works in that direction would challenge those fibres to contract most forcefully.

  • Ab Wheel (abs 143, obliques 97)
  • Hanging Leg Raise (Abs 300, external obliques 163)
  • Body Saw (Abs 188, 143 external obliques)

Best spinal erector exercises (specifically the low back):

These exercises help strengthen the “back” of your core. They work hand in hand with the “front” exercises like the abs and obliques.

  • 60lb Back extension (Score: 172)
  • Bodyweight Reverse Hyper (Score: 159)
  • 10lb weighted bird dog (Score: 112)

This is why we can’t just trust the biggest guy in the gym.

Some popular exercises like side bends put the back at risk by putting it in a weak position and then loading up the back with a weight.

The crazy thing is there were better exercises that hit the obliques like the hanging leg raise because it challenges the obliques the way they’re designed to work (stabilizing) and in the direction of their muscle fibres so they can optimally contract.

And there were exercises like the dumbbell pullover that matched the dumbbell side bends efficiency without risking any back problems (and you’d also get in an awesome chest/arm exercise at the same time.)

Our personal favourites & some recommendations:

Understandably, there needs to be a cut-off in every experiment. So, not every exercise was studied by Dr Contreras. Some of our favourite ab exercises include the:

Deadbug

We love this ab exercise since it can teach people how to hold their core tight while moving their arms and legs through a variety of positions. So it can help you work on mobility while simultaneously building up your abs.

McGill Curl-Up

This crunch alternative was designed by back professor Dr. Stuart McGill. This would be a good option if you want to work the upper abs a bit and crunch but without putting your lower back at risk. (People also tend to hurt their neck a lot during crunches.)

The Swiss Ball Rollout

This is a nice starter before moving onto the more difficult ab wheel rollout. You can increase the difficulty of this exercise as you get stronger by letting more and more air out of the swiss ball. Letting the air out of the ball will make you more horizontal and get you closer down to the floor. Having a swiss ball around can be handy in your training. Plus, you can also use it for the weighted swiss ball crunch.

You don’t need a gym—you can build up a great core at home

The good news is that almost every single one of the top performing core exercises can be done at home without much equipment. Some of them can even be done with just your bodyweight.

So let’s take a look at these exercises again:

  • Ab Wheel (abs 143, obliques 97)
  • RKC Plank (115 abs, 104 obliques)
  • Hanging Leg Raise (Abs 300, external obliques 163)
  • Weighted Swiss Ball Crunch (Abs 231, Obliques 96)
  • 60lb Back extension (Score: 172)
  • Bodyweight Reverse Hyper (Score: 159)
  • 10 weighted bird dog (Score: 112)
  • Body Saw (Abs 188, 143 external obliques)

Ab wheel? A cheap $20 to your home gym that can be put away easily.

The RKC plank is bodyweight and can be done anywhere. You can load it up a bit with a weight plate. (You could even get creative by using a heavy book, a cast iron pan, or something else stable and heavy.)

The hanging leg raises you’ll need a chin-up bar. Many guys at home have a chin-up bar. But if you don’t, you could try something like the lying leg raise.

Swiss ball crunch can be done at home by buying a swiss ball. They can be pretty handy to have around.

The back extension could be done at home on a bench by tucking your feet under the bench. The same thing with the reverse hypers, they can be done off the edge of a bench.

The Body Saw only requires a slippery floor, and a couple face towels.

The bird dog is an excellent exercise for the core, especially for preventing back pain. If back pain is a concern, then it could be worth it to buy ankle weights to help continue to challenge yourself in the bird dog.

Even if you hit the gym, being able to do your whole core workout at home will open up a lot of possibilities. Things like doing 3-4 core exercises every day, even on rest days, just to help get the volume up without killing yourself at the gym.

A couple super weird tricks for the advanced

Okay, you’re big and strong enough. You’re lean and down to 10%. What now? I was reading a program developed by a researcher named Lyle McDonald on shredding the final few pounds of stubborn stomach fat. He’s a fairly well-known and can be controversial in the bodybuilding community. A couple of interesting things he pointed out:

Weird trick #1: Eat more polyunsaturated fats like fish

In your fat cells, it’s more easily burnt if the fat is made up of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat rather than saturated fat. That means that over years of improving your diet to have less saturated fat and more unsaturated fat could allow you to get leaner and stay leaner. So if you improve what you’re eating, things will get easier and easier over time to stay lean. An example of foods to try and eat more of: (Harvard source)

  • Polyunsaturated (most mobilized, especially omega-3s)
    • Fish
    • Flaxseeds
    • Walnuts
  • Monounsaturated (pretty good at being mobilized)
    • Olive oil
    • Peanut oil
    • Avocados
    • Nuts like almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans
    • Seeds like pumpkin and sesame seeds
  • Eat saturated fats in a balanced way
    • meat
    • butter
    • cheese and other dairy fat.

Keep in mind that there’s nothing wrong with saturated fat, but there’s something wrong when you only eat saturated fat.

And trans-fat often gets stored around your belly, and so you should avoid eating trans-fat at all times.

Weird trick #2: keep your core warm to increase bloodflow

Blood flow helps to mobilize fat which is why fat on our abs and stomach are one of the last places to go. Temperature can help with blood flow so you might be able to help this by keeping your stomach warm with a rubber wrap. While Lyle McDonald teases the fact that these wraps even exist, he says it could have an impact. Just to be ultra-clear, this is something for advanced people who are lean and in a calorie deficit. It won’t do anything for you if you’ve still got 20, 10, 5 more pounds of fat to burn off.

What might even work better for improving bloodflow is just walking at a brisk pace for at least 20 minutes every day without stopping.

Weird trick #3: try 24 hour fasting

Longer-term fasting increases blood flow to fat cells, perhaps to help mobilize them for energy. It could be something worth experimenting with. Dr John Berardi has written up a fascinating article about his experiments with intermittent fasting, especially full-day fasts for getting leaner. So something like normally and building muscle all week. Then on Saturday night he have his final meal. He wouldn’t eat all day Sunday until it was 10pm and his 24 hour fast was complete. If you want to learn more about “whole day fasting” check out our article here.

Summary

  • Develop a rock-solid core and prevent back pain by going beyond just training your abs and obliques. Improve your breathing, work on your abdominal bracing, and build up your spinal erectors and glutes.
  • Everyone can develop a strong, robust, and functional core.
    • Pregnant women and those who are post-partum should talk to their doctor first.
    • Those with back-issues can rehab their injuries and get back to living their life. Even they can build up an amazing core with enough patience and caution.
  • Skinny folk will need to focus on bulking up first, then do dedicated ab and oblique training after.
  • Overweight folk will need to focus on lifting weights and burning off fat.
  • Proper core training includes:
    • doing a periodized powerbuilding program to get a strong core.
    • warming up with postural restoration exercises to allow your abs and core to fire properly.
    • then doing dedicated training to ab, oblique, and erector size with the best exercises.
  • The best exercises for the whole core are:
    • bodyweight chin-up
    • weighted Turkish Get-up
  • The best exercises for the abs are:
    • ab wheel
    • RKC plank
    • hanging leg raise
    • weighted swiss ball crunch
  • The best exercises for the obliques are:
    • ab wheel
    • hanging leg raise
    • body saw
  • The best exercises for the spinal erectors are:
    • weighted back extension
    • bodyweight reverse hyper
    • weighted bird dogs
  • We also like these exercises:
    • deadbug for learning how to hold your core.
    • McGill Curl-Up an an option to save your back while working the upper abs (instead of doing crunches).
    • The Swiss Ball Rollout for beginners to work their way down to the ab wheel rollout.
  • You can build an amazing core at home since many of the best exercises are bodyweight or can be done with cheap equipment you can put away in the closet.
  • Weird tricks once you’ve already leaned out include:
    • Eating more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated foods for many years. So, eat more fish and nuts.
    • Keep your core warm. Maybe even experiment with one of those super scammy looking ab wraps.
    • Try 24-hour fasting to mobilize even the most stubborn of fat.

4 thoughts on “The best core exercises—a super guide to abs, obliques, and a rock-solid core”

  1. Another amazingly thorough article. Such a great reference piece.

    People throw their backs out from sneezing? Crazy that something that seems so trivial can be so traumatic. It makes sense, though. When recovering from my surgery, sneezes were the most painful thing I had to deal with. So much so that I worried I was going to blow out my stitches.

    Regarding the tummy warming technique for losing fat. I imagine that it doesn’t actually cause fat loss, but if you’re ALREADY losing more fat, then it will cause that fat to come out of the area with more blood flow—from your stomach. Right? So does that mean that if someone accidentally gains weight while using that technique, they’d store more fat in their stomach?

    If so, should we invent a cooling wrap for guys who are bulking up? That way they can maintain their lean abs 😉

  2. Yeah! That fact about sneezing was from Dr. Stuart McGill, who I trust. I’ve had some pretty powerful sneezes too, so I can see how it could definitely put some weak discs or some fresh stitches at risk!

    For the wrap, I suspect that you’re right. They’d have to be burning fat first. My understanding is that the energy in many fat cells are constantly being burned and then re-filled as you eat. If you get into a calorie deficit, they won’t be re-filled. But if you’re eating at maintenance, then they’ll just keep getting re-filled. The main battle is calories, these are just weird tricks so maybe instead of using energy from your fat cells in your shoulders which are already super lean, it could *maybe* use some fat cells from your stomach instead by making it easier to access them to be burnt off!

    Lyle also said that aerobic exercise increases bloodflow, which is how it can help with those stubborn few pounds getting bloodflow to those cells. So that’s why fasted walks in the morning can be one more cherry on top for those who are already very lean.

    Haha, that’d be amazing eh? If that cold wrap could work? Take a cold pack out of the freezer and insert it into a belt as you eat powdered donuts and cookies? Lyle says that ultimately insulin wins over things like temperature, etc. so I don’t know if it’d do anything meaningful. Could be fun to try as a shot in the dark though. Maybe you do it and let me know how it goes 😉

  3. I like how comprehensive this article is! Just one thing I would also mention is that 10% body fat would be inadvisable for women and therefore a visible six pack for them probably wouldn’t be a good idea in the long run

    1. You’re right that women wouldn’t want to get down to 10%. There are a lot of health effects that women can suffer from once they get too low like athletic amenorrhea. It’s been documented a lot in female Olympians.

      Women are built different and store a lot more fat than men. But because this naturally happens, there aren’t health risks and it looks totally different on them. According to this, most women are about 10% more bodyfat than men for the same BMI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12037649/

      Generally, for guys, a flat stomach might be something like 15–18%, but for women it might be somewhere in the mid-20’s in terms of bodyfat percentage to have the same look. Each person is different though!

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