People often think increasing core strength means getting a six-pack. But your abs are just one part of your core, which includes everything between your legs and arms – your lats, abs, obliques, lower back, and glutes. You want to target all of those muscles equally to develop the strongest, most balanced core. When you do, you'll notice that you have more stability and strength to execute any movement. Think about throwing a punch. Your power comes from your legs, but that force has to travel through your torso and to your arm. Same for shooting a basketball – the power has to transfer from your planted feet through your trunk and finally to your hands. If your core is weak, so is your shot.
Because your core is almost always working with your upper and lower body, isolation exercises, such as crunches, aren't as effective as functional, total-body strengtheners. Here are four that I use in my workouts.
This exercise forces you to engage all of the muscles in your core, balance on a shifting surface, and stay coordinated while moving your hands and feet. Get into push-up position with your feet on top of a stability ball. Raising your right leg a couple of inches, pull the ball in toward your chest using just your left foot (keep your right leg straight and hovering in the air). Walk your hands forward until both legs are straight, and resume your starting position. Repeat the move on your other side, lifting your left leg as you pull the ball in with your right foot, then walk forward. Go slowly at first, and pick up the pace as you improve. Do two sets of 20 tucks on each leg.
Russian Twist (with a Twist)
You may have done Russian twists before – sitting with your legs raised and touching a weight to the floor on either side of your hips. Try them on a stability ball, and you'll add a balance challenge that works your obliques, back, and abs even more. Sit straight up in the center of the ball and hold a kettlebell in front of you. Twist to one side to tap the weight on the side of the ball, then twist to the other for one rep, repeating for three sets of 12. Try it with your feet planted on the floor, then raise them to up the difficulty.
Elevated Crunch to Press
I like this souped-up version of a crunch because you get the added bonus of targeting your upper back and shoulders, and you're working against gravity. Adjust a weight bench so that it's at a 45-degree angle, hooking your feet at the top and lying down with your head at the bottom, two heavy dumbbells in your hands. Crunch up slowly – this way you rely on your abs, not your hips – and press the weights overhead. Slowly lie back, and repeat for three sets of 12.
One of the easiest and most effective exercises to build your core strength is holding a basic plank. I often see men modifying this move – raising and lowering a leg or arm, or moving their hands and feet. But what most people don't realize is that holding a perfect plank – with your shoulders directly over your wrists, back flat, hips raised, and abs engaged – forces every muscle in the core to fire continuously. When you move, you distribute the workload to your legs and arms, and give your core a break. Instead of adding in extra movements, try holding a plank for as long as you can, aiming to go for 10 to 15 seconds longer each consecutive time.