By Julia Odden
Core—noun. The central abdominal muscles of a human; the center of the earth. Core—adjective. Essential, central, fundamental; the central or most important part of something (dictionary.com). Coincidence? I think not.
As a climber, core is the most important part of my workout routine. I need core to keep my feet on the wall when I’m on an overhang and to maintain tension in my entire body. I also need core—like everyone else—when I’m pushing a shopping cart, or getting out of bed, or walking downhill, or going about the rest of my life. Core is essential for everything, the most important muscle group in the upper body for anything from preventing injury to sticking your feet to near-horizontal walls.
So, I’ve compiled five of my favorite core exercises. Each of these can be done in sets—do as many as you can, then take a short break, then do another set. I go up to five sets—the fifth set should be very difficult.
1. The Russian Twist
For those who do not know, there are basically three “columns” of muscle in the abdomen: one in the center, in the six-pack area, and one on each side (left and right). The muscles to the left and right are called the obliques. Russian twists exercise both the central abdominal muscles and the obliques in one relatively simple movement.
To start, get into a V-sit position, but with bent legs. Then, clasping both hands together, twist your torso from side to side; touch your clasped hands to the ground on each side.
I do this exercise in a variety of ways. You can make it more difficult by holding a weight. You can make it easier by resting your heels on the floor. You can also do it in different sets; seventy-five Russian twists coupled with other core exercises will burn, as will doing sets until exhaustion.
2. The Crunch
Focus: Upper Abs
Ah, a classic. A crunch is just a sit-up where only your shoulders leave the floor—you don’t go all the way up like you do in a sit-up. (It’s harder than it sounds.) Don’t use your momentum to bring yourself up; keep your arms crossed against your chest. Crunches work your upper abs, around your rib cage. I like to do them holding a weight plate—even five pounds will make an enormous difference. You can also put your feet under something heavy to make them easier.
People have different opinions on sit-ups and variations; however, although crunches won’t give you six-pack abs, they will tighten your core and help you to keep tension in your upper body.
3. The Classic Plank
Focus: All Abdominals
The plank is one of the most frequently used core exercises in the universal training repertoire. There are many different ways to use plank—you can max out, you can do intervals, you can add weights, and more. It’s simple and difficult to misuse. No matter what, I like to alternate between the three variations I’ll describe. Sometimes, you can do a full core workout with just these three exercises, if you just add weights and vary your intervals. There are two ways to properly do planks. The first way is the most commonly used—lie flat on the floor, then put your elbows directly underneath your shoulders. Raise your body off the ground, and keep yourself completely straight, keeping tension in your core. Keep your weight balanced between your toes and your elbows. It’s basically a push-up position on your elbows.
The variation of the plank works the obliques; from the classic plank position, rotate your body so you are only balanced on one elbow. Keep your body straight as you can and stack your feet on top of each other. You should be completely turned onto your side, with your body perpendicular to the ground. This should work whichever oblique is closer to the ground. Then, switch and do it on the other side.
Planks are good to add into your workout because they’re so static—there’s no movement involved. Unlike the other exercises I’ve described, the point is to keep yourself as still as possible in a difficult position. Instead of building muscle, planks work on building endurance, which is equally important.
Focus: All Abdominals
Before I begin, know that this is a very difficult exercise. Ten reps will be strenuous. Start lying flat on your back with your arms over your head. Then, keeping your legs and upper body straight, simultaneously raise both your legs and torso off the ground until your body forms a “V,” hence the name. Lower yourself back toward the ground, but don’t let your back or feet touch down before lifting up again. Do these until exhaustion.
To make the V-Up easier, allow your legs to bend as you raise them. You can also touch the ground between reps, or put your arms by your sides instead of above your head. You can holds weights to add difficulty.
This is another dynamic, difficult exercise, perfect for intervals.
5. Seated Windshield Wipers
This is another difficult interval exercise. Start by lying on the floor. You might want to hold on to something behind your head. Raise your feet so your legs are straight and perpendicular to the floor. Then, slowly, without moving your upper body, lower your legs to the right. Then, raise them back to your starting position, and then lower them to the left. Continue this for as long as you can. Try to keep your legs always in the same plane.
These are five of the most difficult and effective core exercises that I like to do. Some of these may not work for you, while others will. You might have to mess around with the amount of reps you do or the amount of sets. Remember to take rest days and listen to your body; sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in overworking one muscle group and forgetting to focus on others. I would also explore other exercises and techniques; these are just a few suggestions to get you started. Have fun with your workouts; it’s important that you don’t get too caught up in the results to enjoy the process.
Let me know in the comments what your favorite exercises are! Good luck!