The Comprehensive Guide to Core Training

This guide is your defense against boring and ineffective core training. Far too often, people start a “six pack program” without a genuine understanding of how or why it works.  As a result, when the program starts gets boring or results start coming slower, they stop doing it. Every ab-training program relies on the same principles to develop the strength and size of your abs. When you understand those principles you can mix and match different styles of core workout to keep your exercise regiment effective and engaging.     

Anatomy of a Six Pack

A six-pack is what you get when you combine a low body fat percentage with a set of well developed abdominal muscles. Since fat loss is notoriously hard to achieve and the barriers to success are often deeply personal, this article forgoes discussion of fat loss in favor of discussing how to develop the strength and size of your abdominal muscles regardless of how much fat they’re hiding under.

Developing a strong and stable core requires a combination of loaded movements to target each of the groups of abdominal muscles.  Each of these muscle groups serves a unique physical function and responds to an equally unique training stimulus.   Let’s break that down a little further…   

The Transverse Abdominis: Your “Deep Core”

Often referred to as the “deep abdominal wall”, this muscle is the key to strong core and a shapely six-pack. This sheet of muscle rests under the other abdominal muscles and wraps around your torso to keep your entire mid-section stable.  A primary function of the transverse abdominals is to protect your internal organs by keeping the midsection tightly wrapped around the spine.    

To strengthen the transverse abdominals, the most effective exercises are plank-like holds with the added stress of moving extremities.  If your belly button is being squeezed back towards your spine, you’re working your transverse abdominals.  Exercises like side planks, ab roll outs, TRX knee tuck planks, and most hanging ab exercises are great for strengthening the transverse abdominals.

So what happens when the transverse abdominals are underdeveloped?  Poor posture and increased risk of injury due to poor spinal stabilization.

Internal and External Obliques

The obliques are the muscles that run down the side of the torso and connect with each other to give you the strength to twist and turn around your midsection.  The two primary functions of the obliques are to provide the strength for torso twisting and to hold the rib cage stable at the proper angle.  The external obliques wrap around your midsection and connect with each other in the middle of the torso running in one direction, while the internal obliques run in the opposite direction.  This creates a sort of corset effect with the obliques wrapping around the deeper, transverse abdominals. 

To exercise the obliques, twisting movements as well exercises that require holding the rib cage down and stable are the most effective. 

Rectus Abdominis: “The Six Pack” 

This set of bilaterally paired, square shaped muscles runs vertically up and down the torso.  The rectus abdominals connect the pubic bone and the rib cage together and are responsible for curving the spine behind it to create a folding action at the midsection.  This is the outermost group of abdominal muscles, which is why it’s visible over the obliques and transverse abdominals. 

Any exercise that creates a crunching motion will stimulate these “six pack” muscles.  The biggest mistake that people make when exercising the core is to spend too much time and effort focusing on the rectus abdominis.  Sure, you’ll have big, square looking abs, but your six-pack won’t look good, even if you’re already lean.  The key to a great set of abs is strong transverse abdominals and obliques to keep the core tight around the spine and internal organs.  In other words, it’s the ability to maintain tension in the abs for extended periods of time is the foundation for well-developed rectus abdominal muscles and an aesthetically pleasing six pack. 

Exercises for Every Experience Level: My Three Phase Model

Pairing your experience level and current core strength with an appropriately intense core training program is the key to progress towards a great looking midsection.  With that in mind, I’ve created a three-phase model for core training.  The first two phases require no equipment other than your body and a flat surface to lie on.  

The goal of Phase 1 is to build a base of strength and, ultimately, the ability to perform the workouts of Phase 2.  In Phase 1 you’ll be getting used to some of the physical discomfort associated with core training without going overboard.  When you move to Phase 2, you’ll be working on expanding your muscle’s work capacity against bodyweight resistance.  Then, in Phase 3, advanced exercises are introduced to provide the stimulus required to develop a truly next level six-pack. 

What Phase Are You In? 

Picking workouts that are right for your experience level is tremendously important when it comes to program adherence.  There's absolutely no shame in starting out at Phase 1 even if you've been exercising for a while already.  In fact, you can have a visible six pack and still need to spend some time in Phase 1.  Being honest with yourself will lead to the fastest progress. 

Phase 1: Establishing Form and Adapting to Stress

  • Little or no experience core training

  • Long time since last period of consistent exercise

  • Cannot hold a low plank (easily) for over 60 seconds

  • Hip imbalances or failure to maintain back on ground while exercising

  • Cannot complete 5 continuous minutes of floor exercises

  • Max situps in a minute less than 20

  • Unable to run a mile in less than 8 minutes

Phase 2: Mastering Form and Expanding Work Capacity

  • Can easily hold a plank for 60 - 120 seconds

  • Max situps in a minute 20 - 30

  • Can maintain 5 continuous minutes of floor exercises

  • Good cardiovascular condition

  • Steady, in line hips with only minor imbalances

Phase 3: Reaching Elite Core Strength

  • Can easily hold a plank for over 120 seconds

  • Max situps in a minute over 25

  • Can perform a hanging toe to bar movement

  • Very good cardiovascular condition

  • Good hip alignment

  • Can complete the "8 Minute Phase 2" workout without resting for more than 5 seconds more than twice.

A Word on Form and Posture

Before introducing the exercises in each of the phases, we have to touch on one of biggest barriers people face when they ramp up their core training; Low-back and neck pain. Training your core with poor form will exacerbate low-back and neck pain. Simply put, if the muscles on the front and back side of your body are pulling on your spine unevenly your spine is likely to curve excessively and this excessive curvature causes pain - especially under load. For a more thorough overview of the core’s involvement in pelvic tilting and how the spine is affected by that pelvic tilting, check out my “Yoga for structural integrity” article. 

If you’re skipping the article, just remember that the hips must stay neutral while working your abs.  When doing floor exercises, you know your hips are neutral when you can feel your lower back pressing into the floor.  If you feel space between the ground and your lower back, at any time during the movement, use your deep abdominals to tilt your pelvis up towards your face.  The cue “tuck your butt under” is usually effective.  This will neutralize your hip angle and allow for proper form. 

Sometimes neutral hips need to be worked towards.  That’s an issue for another article (specifically the yoga article I mentioned above). In fact, there's a quick hip stretch routine in that post that can be done before and after core workouts to set up and reinforce proper hip. 

Phase 1: 

As was mentioned above, the first of the three phases is designed to get you accustomed to core training without going overboard.  Since the core is such a central set of muscles, they are very quick to adapt to a training stimulus.  This means that an overwhelming majority of people, even with minimal exercise backgrounds, can progress to Phase 2 within a couple of weeks.  The exception would be exercisers who are significantly out of shape or those with poor posture stemming from a pelvic tilt problem.  Even those two populations should have no problem progressing to Phase 2 within a two-month period.

Exercises On Side of Page

The Standard Phase 1 Core Workout:

There should be continuous strain on the muscles for 3-5 minutes, followed by a plank and then rest. 

The circuit below can be completed multiple times if desired.  To gauge progress, try to either extend the amount of time performing each exercise or perform more repetitions before the rest periods.

Perform the following circuits without rest between the exercises:

  • Leg Raises for 10 reps of 30 seconds

  • Crunches for 30 – 40 seconds

  • Flutter Kicks for 30 reps or 30 seconds

  • Low plank for 30 – 60 seconds

  • REST 30 – 60 Seconds

  • Bicycle Crunches for 30 – 40 seconds

  • Side plank for 30 – 45 seconds each

  • 5 stomach rounds stomach vacuums

Phase 1: Workout Design Keys

By no means should you feel obligated to stick to the standard Phase 1 workout.  Being able to mix and match different exercises and timing patterns is the key to keeping your core program interesting and engaging.  Here are a few principles to stick to when designing your own Phase 1 workout:

·      3-5 minutes of continuous work with a few built in rest periods.

·      No more than 15 minutes training time (including rest)

·      Should be performed between 2 and 6 times per week.  4 or 5 times per week is optimal.

Phase 2

Phase 2 is designed to serve as either a lifelong core training modality, or as a transitory, strength-building period in preparation for Phase 3.  There are only a few additional exercises on top of those from Phase 1, but the principle is to build on both the amount of time your abs can handle resistance and to increase the amount of resistance.  The table below is by no means an all-inclusive list of Phase 2 exercises.  I’ve included it to give an idea of the types of exercises in Phase 2.  Just about any core exercise done on the floor can be included here.

Exercises On Side of Page:

Phase 2: The Standard Workout

In Phase 2, the standard core workout starts at 8 minutes and can be stretched longer to 10, or even 12 minutes of continuous resistance. 

The key concept is to perform three exercises for one minute each without rest, do a plank for a minute, then perform three different exercises for one minute each and finish with a final plank.  This pattern is amazingly effective for building core strength and an awesome set of abs. 

Here’s my favorite way to do it:

Minute 1: Sit Ups

Minute 2: Leg Raises

Minute 3: Crunches

Plank Minute

Minute 5: Twist Ups

Minute 6: Windshield Wipers

Minute 7: Bicycle Crunches

Plank Minute 

Phase 2: Workout Design Keys

Just like in phase one, mixing and matching different exercises and timing patterns is highly encouraged.  Even with these more strenuous core workouts, you can still perform them up to 6 times per week.  I recommend alternating between a longer, more intense workout one day, and then a slightly shorter and less intense workout the next day. 

Phase 2 is where you can really start mixing it up with the workouts.  You can add a more plank-focused day to work the transverse abdominals especially hard.  You can do a sit up/leg raise challenge day where you do as many of each exercise in an alternating pattern for a set amount of time.  You can even do multiple, shorter but more intense circuits with rest in between.  Just keep things interesting and never neglect any of the three major core muscle groups.   Check out the bottom of this article for some creative, Phase 2 core workout ideas.

Phase 3: Advanced Core Workout

The exercises in Phase 3 are advanced exercises that are only to be performed by those who already have a solid base of core strength. These advanced core workouts let you get off of the floor by incorporating some external resistance. 

A Phase 3 core program consists of two to three different heavy workouts with a specific focus and two to three lighter core workouts more like those from in Phase 2.   The idea is to put a major focus on either the transverse abdominis and the rectus abdominis, or the obliques during each heavy workout, take a lighter day, and then focus on the other group(s).  No core exercise is off limits in Phase 3, but here are some of the foundational ones that aren’t present in the first two phases:

Heavy Workout 1: Transverse and Rectus Abdominis Focus  

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 1.56.38 PM.png

This workout focuses on the two muscle groups that run up and down the midsection.  For that reason, the main exercises should focus on straight-line movements like leg raises and rollouts instead of twisting motions.  This split approach lets you train your abs heavy twice or more times per week. 

A standard Heavy Workout 1 can look as follows:  Superset a hanging leg raise with ab-wheel rollouts or weighted sit ups.  Go back and forth for 3-5 sets of each, then perform 3-5 minutes of floor work that emphasizes leg raise type movements and intense holds.  Remember, the key is to be stressing the transverse abdominis and the rectus abdominis, the obliques shouldn’t be getting too much work. 

Heavy Workout 2:  Oblique focus

This workout focuses primarily on the obliques.  While your obliques are getting worked hard, your transverse and rectus abdominals should be getting a break of sorts.  A standard Heavy Workout 2 should combine some upper body twisting exercise with a lower body, windshield wiper type exercise. 

My favorite way to do this is to do a heavy, standing cable twist back and forth with either a hanging windshield wiper or a windshield wiper on the floor.  The same rep scheme applies here as in Heavy Workout 1, go through 3-5 times of each heavy twist and then finish with 3-5 minutes of lighter, twisting core exercises on the ground. 

Heavy Workout 3:  Total Abs

Heavy Workout 3 is for someone who either wants to get another heavy core workout in or who wants to train core heavy less often.  This workout ditches the split approach in favor of a full abdominal workout.  The best way to do this is to cycle through three different heavy exercises.  One should focus on in-line, lower ab contraction, one should focus on in-line upper ab contraction and the last should be a twist. 

My go to is the following circuit: Toe to bar, Heavy Russian twists, ab-wheel rollouts.  After a few times through that circuit, finish with 4-6 minutes of continuous floor exercises for every region of the core. 

Phase 3: Lighter Core Workouts

In Phase 3, it’s important to work in some lighter and less intense workouts to avoid overtraining.  The recommendation would be that for every two heavy workouts you do, you should do at least two lighter workouts.  These lighter workouts can either look like a Phase 2 floor workout or they can have a unique focus. 

For example, you could do a series of planks, yogic core training, or even just a 10-minute session of stomach vacuums for your lighter core workout.  The lighter workouts are designed to keep your abs stimulated and to fill in any holes that there might be in core training.  Keep it light and keep it fun and you’ll be amazed how strong and confident you feel with your Phase 3 abs. 

Conclusion and The Workout Bank

There it is, everything you need to know to create your own core training program that matches your goals with your experience level.  Never neglect the deeper, core muscle groups.  Always pay attention to your hip angle.  And most importantly, be consistent! 

For the first two phases, the goal is always to build your work capacity.  The philosophy there is pretty simple; the more your abs can do, the stronger and better they’ll look.  Once you’re comfortable in Phase 2, you can either move on to conquer Phase 3 or simply dabble in Phase 3 style workouts while you maintain what you’ve achieved with increasingly difficult Phase 2 workouts.  But, wherever you are in your journey towards great abs, put a priority on keeping your workouts engaging. 

To help you in designing your program, I’ve provided a bunch of core workouts for every phase.  Notice what I'm manipulating (timing, reps, exercise pattern, etc.) with each workout to produce a spectrum of workouts that all adhere to the principles of effective core training. Enjoy!

The Workout Bank

Different Ways to Manipulate Formats

Not all of these format styles are present below in the workouts I've written, but they're great tools for adding some variety to your core workouts.  Even by using only the same couple of exercises, you can change the timing, the rep patterns, and the goal of each workout to keep it interesting.  Here are some simple ways to make that happen: 

  • EMOM: Every Minute on the Minute: Pick two exercises, the first will be done for a set number of reps starting at the beginning of each minute. Once those reps are completed, move on to exercise two until the minute is over, then repeat exercise one for either the same set number of reps or less reps.

  • Tabata: 20 seconds on, 10 seconds "off" is the pattern. For abs though, I like to mix 20 seconds of one abs exercise with 10 seconds of another. For example, 20 seconds flutter kicks with 10 second six inch leg hold. You can do a variety of these Tabata combinations or the same one over and over again for a great core workout

  • Go For Time: Instead of going for a set number of reps, go for a set amount of time and see how many reps you can do in that time

  • Go For Reps: Instead of going for time, go for a set number of reps and track progress by either watching the time it takes to complete the reps shrink or watching the number of reps you can do increase

  • Pyramid and Drop Sets: These are done by changing the number of reps of time spent in each exercise by a set amount of time every time you complete a cycle. For example, a cycle of three exercises can start with 50 reps of each, then during the second round it will be 40 reps of each, the third time 30, and so on. You can progress down in reps or up in reps, totally your choice.

The only things changing in these workouts are the timing, number of reps, and connecting patterns.  Notice how each of the workouts below has some change in timing, pattern, or reps to achieve its uniqueness.  

Phase 1 Workouts: 

Phase 2 Workouts:


Phase 3 Workouts: