Nine vicious exercises that’ll build your core without boring you to death.
Writing articles can be funny sometimes. There are times I’ll address a topic that gets me all jazzed up but fails to get much of a response from readers. Other times I’ll write something that I think is solid and helpful but not necessarily thrilling, and it’ll be a huge hit.
Such was the case with my “hit” article, Not Your Average B.S. Core Training. I thought it was a good article and I shared some fun and innovative core stability exercises, but to be honest, I almost didn’t even write the article because – let’s be real here – core stability isn’t very sexy or exciting.
It’s important no doubt, but it’s boring. Heavy lifting excites me. Brutal workouts excite me. Core stability? Not so much.
As important as it is to include for performance, injury prevention, and aesthetic reasons, I still look for any excuse I can to skip working core, and honestly, I often do.
So at first I was really surprised that my core stability article was such a hit. After I thought about it, though, it made perfect sense. I think a lot of people are in the same boat as me regarding core stability work – they acknowledge its value on some level but find it really boring, and most of the traditional core stability exercises are just too easy except to those who work out three times a week with soup cans.
With that in mind, here are some more challenging (dare I say fun?) core exercises to add to your arsenal.
Ab wheel rollouts are a great exercise to train the anterior core – one of my favorites – but they’ll quickly become easy for stronger lifters. Unless you want to bang out sets of 30+ reps, you’ll need to make them harder.
You can do this a number of different ways, each with its own advantages and drawbacks.
One way to go is to progress to standing rollouts starting from the feet rather than the knees. However, standing rollouts are simply too hard for most and I’ve seen several people hurt themselves trying to build up to them, so I’ve since looked elsewhere.
Another way to make standard ab wheel rollouts tougher is to add weight with weighted vests or putting plates on your back. I’ve done this a lot with good success, but I find that it quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns where adding more weight changes your leverages in such a way that makes it difficult to maintain good form and increases the demands on the shoulders more than the core.
So while I’m not against adding a little bit of additional weight, I no longer advocate adding a ton of additional load because it detracts from the intended goal of the exercise, which is to hone in on the core.
For that reason, I really like band-resisted rollouts. They offer a significant additional challenge over just using your bodyweight without changing your leverages or interfering with your ability to move freely.
Plus, they offer accommodating resistance – so they’re easier at the point of full extension where you’re weakest, and they also take stress off the shoulders in their most vulnerable position.
Band-resisted rollouts are usually done facing the band straight-on so the resistance is primarily front-back in the capital plane. While that’s certainly fine and a great exercise in its own right, I’ve found that setting up at a 45-degree angle to the band but still performing them just as you normally would (moving straight back and forth) creates a unique challenge.
You’re still ostensibly moving purely in the sagittal plane, yet you now have to resist getting pulled sideways by the band too, which forces you to stabilize in the frontal and transverse planes to resist rotation and lateral flexion, thereby working the rotary and lateral core along with the anterior core.
I thus call them “anti” rollouts because they train anti-extension, anti-rotation, and anti-lateral flexion all at the same time.
Here’s what they look like in action.
These are a lot harder than they look, trust me. The band will have a tendency to pull you towards the anchor point, especially as you reach the point of full extension, so it’s important that you’re sure to move out and back in a straight line.
If you don’t have a buddy or training partner to keep you honest, it’s helpful to put something straight next to you to serve as a guide so you don’t veer off course. You can easily increase or decrease the difficulty simply by setting up farther away or closer to the anchor point of the band. The farther back or the farther off to the side, the harder it is and vice versa.
Another way to make rollout variations harder is to decrease the base of support by doing them one leg at a time.
This is nice because it substantially increases the difficulty for the core without making it harder for the upper body. It also introduces an anti-rotational component to the exercise so you’re challenging the rotary core along with the already great anterior core work that you get from regular rollouts.
You can do these with an ab wheel, a barbell, or sliders as I demonstrate in the video below:
Interestingly, with regular rollouts, I find that the ab wheel is the easiest followed by the sliders and the barbell. However, with single-leg rollouts (or slideouts), the ab wheel is actually harder because it has a tendency to tip on you because the hands are so close together, whereas you can spread them out wider with the sliders and barbell, making for a more stable base.
That’s just something to keep in mind when trying them out.
To progress the previous exercise a step further, you can try going to a one leg sliding push-up reach.
Start in push-up position with your hands on a pair of sliders. One arm performs a push-up while you slide the other arm straight out in front of you as far as you can. Whichever arm you reach out, lift up the opposite foot.
Since I’m sure that explanation did nothing but confuse you, I’ll just show you what it looks like:
You can do all the reps on one side before switching sides, or do them in alternating fashion as I’m doing in the video.
In the past I’ve done the sliding push-up reach with both feet on the floor and progressed it by adding a weighted vest, but that seems to challenge the push-up portion of the exercise much more than the core aspect, whereas decreasing the base of support by switching to one leg jacks up the core demand without increasing the upper body demand. So as always, the best exercise choice really depends on your goal.
If doing it from push-up position is too hard, you can also do them from the knees.
Here’s a core exercise that will also crank up your heart rate, making it a great “finisher” for an upper body workout.
Perform a push-up slide as normal, but rather than return to the starting position on each rep, walk your feet forward until your hands are even and continue in that fashion for as long as you can handle, or as long as the space in your gym will allow.
Just a few sets will have you huffing and puffing and have your core and upper body burning and begging for mercy.
Most finishers and conditioning work crush the lower body: sleds, sprints, bikes, etc. That’s fine, unless you’re trying to give your legs a rest, in which case you’ve got a problem.
Apart from battling ropes and upper body complexes, there aren’t as many good finishers for the core and upper body that don’t tax the legs. This exercise fits that bill nicely.
Since a lot of dudes (myself included) don’t particularly like either core work or conditioning, it’s also a good way to kill two birds with one stone.
I won’t say it’s quick and painless, but at least it’s quick.
I shared a new lateral raise variation I’ve been doing with the landmine in a recent article. They feel awesome on the shoulders, and I’ve received a lot of good feedback from people that have tried them out and really liked them.
If you do them from the half-kneeling position, you can still blast the shoulders, but it also doubles as a heck of a core exercise, while also giving you a fantastic hip flexor stretch to boot. That’s some serious bang for your buck.
From a core standpoint it’s very similar to the increasingly popular half-kneeling lift exercise, only you get the added benefit of crushing your shoulders at the same time.
Some factions in the fitness community scoff at the notion of doing isolation work like lateral raises because it’s not “functional,” or is somehow deemed to be vain. That’s dumb, but if that’s the case, this exercise would be a good way to get around that problem because you fry your delts to your heart’s content under the guise of a “functional” core and hip stability exercise.
Interestingly, I’ve found I can handle just as much weight in the half-kneeling position than I can handle standing, so you aren’t giving up anything from a shoulder-building perspective.
You can do them from a true half-kneeling position with your back knee on the floor or raise the knee slightly like I’m doing in the video, turning it into more of an iso-lunge and making it harder on the glutes and hip stabilizers. Your choice.
These are the same as the regular sliding push-up reach, only you stay in the bottom position of the push-up for the entire set.
Doing them in this fashion increases the demands on the upper body quite a bit, but still challenges the core a lot through anti-extension and anti-rotation.
To increase the rotary stability demands further and also put more stress on the pecs, try reaching the arms straight out to the sides instead of reaching straight out. This is also a great progression to build to sliding chest flys, one of my absolute favorite chest builders.
All the push-up reach variations I’ve shown thus far have involved sliders. If you don’t have sliders, or don’t have a good surface to use the sliders, you can also use rings.
Here’s an example of the regular push-up reach:
From here, you can progress on to all the same variations that I’ve demonstrated with the sliders.
If you have both options available to you, I much prefer the sliders because they just feel better, but the rings are still a good option and will work similarly.
They’re more or less equal in terms of difficulty, so you shouldn’t have much of a problem switching from one to the other, and you could certainly use both for more variation.
Each of the exercises I’ve shared in this article (and the previous article) require the use of an ab wheel, sliders, rings, a landmine, or some other piece of specialized equipment.
What do you do if you don’t have any of those goodies? Or what if you’re on the road traveling and don’t have access to a gym?
Fear not, I’ve still got you covered.
Long-lever plank shoulder taps are a brutal core exercise that requires nothing more than your bodyweight.
Regular shoulder taps are where you get into push-up position and alternate touching each hand to the opposite shoulder while focusing on keeping your torso and hips steady.
That’s a great exercise as it is, but it may not be very challenging for more advanced lifters. To make it substantially harder, try walking your feet back into a longer lever plank before doing the shoulder taps.
The same rules apply for these as for the regular push-up taps – do each rep slowly and deliberately and make sure you aren’t arching your back and/or swiveling your hips and shoulders as you reach across your body.
The farther you walk back, the farther you extend the lever and thus the harder the exercise becomes.
Start with the regular version in standard push-up position and slowly work your way back over time, progressing only to the point you can maintain good control of your core and keep good form.
This one is very similar to the long-lever shoulder taps (albeit a bit harder), only you keep both your hands on the ground and instead alternate picking up your feet one at a time, almost like you’re doing a freestyle swimming kick – hence why I call them ‘flutters’.
Just as with the previous exercise, you want to keep steady and avoid arching your back. To that end, don’t lift your legs up too high, and make sure you’re squeezing your glutes and having them do the work to lift your leg rather than extending from the lumbar spine.
If you’re doing these correctly your glutes should be on fire by the end of the set. If you feel it more in your lower back, you’re not doing it right, or you may need to shorten the lever and make it easier by walking back in a bit.
Again, start in a standard push-up position and work your way back over time as you become more proficient.
If you’ve been skimping on your core work, try some of these exercises for yourself. I think you’ll quickly start rethinking just how boring and wussy core stability training really is. And who knows? You may actually start to enjoy it.
Just don’t go trying them all at once or else your abs will feel like they’ve been brutalized. You’ve been warned.