Core-Training Exercises: How to Get the Abs You Dream Of

In the last post, I teased you with why having a strong midsection is so important, and now I’m going to get into the “how to” of accomplishing it.


Pilates was developed a century ago by some guy named Joseph Pilates (go figure) and today millions of people around the world currently practice it. Pilates’ practitioners explain the practice as an attempt to create a fusion of mind and body, so that without even engaging the mind, the body will move with economy, grace, and balance. That’s a nice way of saying it makes you one tough mother.

The activity involves a wide variety of intense core exercises. If all you ever do for exercise is take Pilates, this would be plenty good enough to ensure strong muscles throughout your midsection, although you should seek out a qualified instructor.

Classes can be motivating, but they’re also expensive and may not fit with your schedule. Although not as good, a video is a much less expensive and flexible option. If Pilates isn’t your thing, however, then keep reading.

Learn more core exercises

Core Endurance
In terms of core exercises, anything that involves more than about 15 repetitions builds endurance, which is useful for keeping your body stabilized when you do things such as running or everyday activities like putting your kids in bed. One note about endurance activity: It doesn’t increase the size of the muscle.

  • Improving Core Endurance: It’s my opinion that targeted core endurance activity isn’t really necessary, and instead can simply be done by ensuring you activate your core during all forms of exercise. For example, if you’re lifting weights you should always ensure that you have solidly braced your entire midsection for each exercise. This doesn’t mean sucking in your stomach, but instead imaging that you just drank two gallons of water and are about to meet the Queen of England. In other words, you clench the bejebus out of everything from your nipples to your nethers in an effort to prevent urine from escaping – that’s the sensation you’re after. During any type of strenuous effort, think the words “activate core” and it will become second nature, serving to train the area and keep your spine safe from injury.

Core Strength
This is where you get into more targeted training with a more focused effort. The thing about this type of training is that you want to work in a range of repetitions below 15. This doesn’t mean stop at 15, but rather means do them in such a manner that completing more than 15 is impossible.

Regarding size, your abdominals are inherently thin muscles, and they aren’t going to get much bigger. However, if you’ve managed to get lean enough to see your abdominal muscles then working them hard in the lower rep range will make them a little larger and more noticeable.

Here are some examples of exercises you can do to improve your core strength and power, as well increase the size of these muscles:

  • Crunches, Leg Raises and Sit-Ups: There are a wide variety of these types of exercises that involve twists, going against gravity, holding a weight on your chest, or using machines. Contrary to popular belief, sit-ups are not inherently bad for your back, but can exacerbate an existing condition. The thing about sit-ups vs. crunches is that the extra range of a sit-up trains hip flexors rather than core muscles, so feel free to just stick with crunches and leg raises.
  • Because you want to complete these exercises in the lower rep range, you need to focus on making them a strenuous effort. Adding gravity or added weight is one method, but another is to not simply just “go through the motions” of the action, but instead focus in intensely clenching your target muscles first, and then this clenching serves to indirectly move the body in the desired direction. For example, when doing a crunch don’t just raise your back from the floor. Instead, clench your abs hard so that it feels like your back has no choice but to raise off the floor.
  • One important safety note: This is one form of exercise where you should ensure that your low back is rounded outwards. For the vast majority of weight-training exercises you want a slight inward curve to your low back, but not for crunches and sit-ups, as doing so can lead to an anterior disc herniation.
  • So, choose a slow pace with a focus on making it an intense effort. If you can do more than 15, you’re making it too easy.

Wood Chops
These are not only a great exercise for improving your golf, baseball or hockey game, but just making your entire midsection a lot tougher. While the previous section focused on smaller movements in specific areas, wood chops utilize more muscles in a more functional manner.

An important thing to remember about wood chops is to let your midsection do most of the work. Although your arms are engaged, you should keep their movement to a minimum. So, what is a wood chop? Here are some images:
Reverse wood chop-1
Reverse wood chop-2

On a personal note, I love doing wood chops. Give them a try.

Other Core Exercises
Here are a few more images for you to try:
Russian twist
Twisting crunch with Swiss ball

This is just a basic introduction. A number of books have been written on this subject, so feel free to go out and learn more. In case you’re curious, I spend a grand total of about 20 minutes a week directly training my midsection, which I think is plenty.

James S. Fell is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and a middle-aged family man with a desk job and not much free time, yet he’s able to keep in shape because he loves exercise and doesn’t mind eating healthy. He is the author of Body for Wife: The Family Guy’s Guide to Getting in Shape.