More than a Six Pack: 3 Keys to Building Functional, Performance-Enhancing Core Strength

This article was originally written for STACK.

A well-developed core is not only the prominent feature of a good physique, it's the foundation of an elite athlete. Strength, power and stability all originate at the core. To function properly, it must be trained properly.

Drop the endless Crunches, century-long Planks, and gimmicky BOSU ball workouts. Instead, focus on these three principles to build functional, performance-enhancing core strength.

1. Train With "Anti" Movements

"Anti" movements fall into three categories:

Anti-Extension: Prevent extension of the spine.

Anti-Rotation: Prevent rotation of the spine.

Anti-Lateral Flexion: Prevent lateral flexion (side-bending) of the spine.

These three areas cover the core's primary function. The ability to resist extension, rotation and lateral flexion are what stabilizes the body when placed under stress, whether by movement or load. To build a truly resilient core, all three "anti-" movements need to be trained regularly. Aim to directly target each of these categories at least once per week.

2. Use Appropriate Exercises and Rep Ranges

To properly stimulate the core, it needs to be trained just like every other body part— with adequate load and volume. Too often, athletes resort to performing hundreds of sloppy reps of basic exercises like Crunches, Leg Lifts and static Plank holds for their core workouts. All those reps really aren't accomplishing anything other than making you tired.

Instead, you need to challenge your core with difficult exercises executed with control and purpose. The majority of core training should fall somewhere within the 6- to 15-rep range- just like other body parts. Static Planks are fine for beginners, but upgrading them with dynamic movement is a much better way to progress them than simply holding the position for minutes on end.

3. Perform Unilateral Exercises

Unilateral exercises (single-arm or single-leg exercises) are an excellent way to stimulate the core without directly training it. The instability created when only working one side of the body forces the core to work overtime to stabilize your trunk.

Compared to balancing on BOSU balls or moving platforms, these exercises are a much safer and applicable approach to core training. Unilateral exercises are also a better approximation of the movements you'll encounter during competition, so utilizing them in your training only makes sense.