These are the moves you need to know to build a seriously strong core.
For some guys, their midsection is their pride and joy. You know the type. He’s the first to take his shirt off for any and all reasons, he’s constantly flexing, he has a nickname for his abs. But even if their stomachs look like they could be used to do your laundry, they might not actually be getting their core muscles primed for real-world functionality. Hammering only your six-pack muscles (also known as the rectus abdominis) is a very narrow scope of practice. For a balanced core that’s not all about aesthetics, you’ll need to train your oblique muscles, too.
Your obliques are the muscles that many consider their “side abs,” and technically, they’re not wrong. But there’s more to those two pairs of muscles—the external and internal obliques—that run along the sides of your core. The obliques work together to help you to bend side-to-side, rotate your torso from left to right, and assist with spinal flexion (the movement you’d typically associate with movements like crunches and situps that target those six-pack muscles). The obliques also actively resist against rotation to help stabilize and protect your spine. They’re a key muscle group for stability, a muscle group that gets attacked when you twist and turn, and when you brace in those positions.
That means moves like side planks and windmills will challenge your oblique muscles, as will any exercises that have you holding a load off-center while still trying to keep your hips and shoulders square.
Unfortunately, too many guys only target their oblique muscles with exercises that only factor in one of those functions, if they target their obliques at all. Side bends and plate dips can only go so far in a well-balanced program. You’ll want to break out of that box if you want a strong, functional core. The following exercises train your obliques in all the ways they function, by using uneven loads, instability, or rotation. The result: You’ll challenge your obliques from every angle. Tack on these moves in your workout as is appropriate, or pair three to five of them together for a killer obliques circuit.
The Pallof press is an anti-rotation exercise, so the key is keeping your torso totally locked-in. Think of this as a full core move that gets the whole unit involved.
To start, stand or kneel next to a cable machine or a resistance band tethered to a low anchor point. Set up away from that anchor point far enough that there’s tension. Hold the handle of the cable or the band in your hands and brace your core and squeeze your glutes. Extend your arms out, fighting against the rotational force to keep your torso stable. After a count, return to the starting position.
You’ll need a weight bench (or some other sturdy platform of similar height) for this plank variation, which challenges you to elevate your body above the ground for a tougher stabilization.
Get into a side plank position, with your outside foot up on the bench. Squeeze your upper abs, hips, and obliques to keep your hips up and your spine straight. For the standard variation, keep the leg closer to the ground off the floor. If you want an additional challenge, you can give the version of the Copenhagen plank from the video a shot and add the knee drives with the lower leg.
The classic windmill challenges your abs to no end, even though you might not feel it in the moment. This windmill balance upgrades that: Essentially, you’ll balance on one knee and one hand for a few seconds, firing up both internal and external obliques.
Blast your abs in all directions with this upgrade to the windmill, which adds a cardiovascular component to things too. It also pushes you to move quickly through it; this challenge ramps up your heart rate and challenges your balance. Glutes and obliques wind up working together on this exercise, just as they do in real life.
Offset Dumbbell Squat
Grab a medium-weight dumbbell with one hand and hold it in the racked position, so one end rests by your shoulder with your elbow bent. Lower your hips toward until your quads are at least parallel to the floor. Pause, and then reverse the movement to the standing position.
Keep your back in the upright position. Perform all prescribed reps on one side, switch hands and repeat.
Single-Arm Overhead Press
Grab a dumbbell with one hand and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Squeeze your glutes and brace your core—like you’re about to be punched in the gut—and press the dumbbell overhead. Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
Perform all prescribed reps on one side, switch hands and repeat.
Bear Plank Chest Press
This tweak to the classic cable fly puts your obliques on notice as you battle to keep your hips square to the ground while the resistance pulls you upwards. It’s a solid chest-day finisher that blasts your abs too.
Single-Arm Farmer’s Carry
Grab a heavy dumbbell in one hand and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold it with your palm facing your side and the dumbbell hovering a few inches away from your body.
Brace your abs like you’re about to be punched in the gut and walk for a prescribed distance.
Lie on one side with your legs straight and prop up your upper body on your forearm. Raise your hips so your body forms a straight line from your head to your heels.
If you want to make it harder elevate your feet or add a torso rotation.
Single-Leg Side Plank
Get into the side-plank position. Keeping your back straight and your body facing forward, slowly lift your leg toward the ceiling. Hold for 10 seconds.
Only perform this exercise if you’ve mastered the side plank (see previous slide).
Copenhagen Plank Rear Delt Raise
Add a twist to your Copenhagens by adding a weight. As you raise and lower, it’ll challenge your obliques to stay stable and not let your torso rotate to the front, a different challenge for your core that will be much appreciated when you feel the burn the next day.
Side Plank and Row
Lower the pulley on the cable machine so it’s only a foot or so off of the ground. (You can also tie a continuous-loop exercise band around a post.) Get into a side-plank position facing the cable or band. Bend your elbow and pull the handle to your rib cage, pause and reverse the movement.
Only perform this move if you’ve mastered the side plank (see previous slide).
Get into a pushup position. Shift your weight into your left arm and rotate your torso up and to the right until you’re facing sideways. Pause for 3 seconds before reversing the movement and repeating on the opposite side.
Sit on the floor with your knees bent. Hold a weight plate straight out in front of your chest and lean back so your torso is at a 45-degree angle to the floor. Brace your core as if you’re about to be punched in the gut.
Without moving your torso, rotate your arms to the left as far as you can. Pause for 3 seconds before doing the same on the right.
Single-Arm Reverse Lunge and Press
Grab a dumbbell with one hand and hold it next to your left shoulder, your palm facing in. Step backward with your left leg and lower your body into a reverse lunge as you simultaneously press the dumbbell straight above your shoulder.
To return to the starting position, lower the dumbbell as you push yourself back up. Complete all of your reps on the left side, switch sides and repeat.
Get into a tabletop position with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Simultaneously lift your left arm and right leg. Pause for 5 to 10 seconds before lowering. Repeat on the other side.
If you want to make it harder, elevate your knees so they hover just a few inches off of the floor.
Get into a tabletop position with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Dig your toes into the floor and slightly elevate your knees so they hover just a few inches above the ground.
Simultaneously rotate your torso to the right and drive your left knee and your right elbow toward each other so they meet in front of your chest. Pause, and then reverse the movement. Alternate sides with each rep.
Lie on your left side, right arm extended so it’s perpendicular to the floor. Prop yourself up on your left forearm and raise your hips so your body is straight from ankles to head. Lower your left hip, and then raise it again until it’s in line with your body.
Finish all your reps on your left side before switching to your right side.
Get into a pushup position with your hands underneath your shoulders and your body forming a straight line from your head to your heels. One at a time, swing your legs out to the side without bending your knee.
Perform it in a slow and controlled manner, or speed it up for an extra metabolic boost.
Band-Resisted Anti-Rotational Press
Grab a continuous-loop exercise band and tie it around a vertical post—the inside of a squat rack works well—so it’s just below shoulder height. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and the right side of your body facing the post.
Pull the band in front of you so it’s even with the middle of your chest. Holding it with both hands, take a step or two away from the post to create more tension in the band.
Extend your arms out in front of you, pressing the band away from your body. Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
Assume a plank position with your forearms on a Swiss ball. Use your elbows to move the ball in small circles, making sure your core doesn’t rotate or your back arches or bends.
Cross-Body Mountain Climber
Get into a pushup position. Raise your right knee toward your left elbow, lower, and then raise your left knee toward your right elbow. Begin slowly to practice and then try to move as quickly as you can.
Half-Kneeling Cable Chop
Attach a rope handle to the high pulley of a cable station. Kneel down next to the handle so your right side faces the machine. Your outside knee should be on the floor and your inside knee should be at a 90-degree angle.
With both hands use an overhand grip to hold the rope and pull it from above your right shoulder to below your right hip rotating your torso as little as possible.
Perform this movement in a split-squat position for an additional stability challenge and muscle burn.
Medicine-Ball Rotational Toss
Grab a medicine ball and stand sideways, about 3 feet away from a solid wall. Your left side should be close to the wall and your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees slightly and hold the ball at chest level with your arms straight and parallel to the floor.
Rotate your torso to the right and release the ball. Catch it as it bounces back and return to the starting position.
Lie faceup with your hips and knees bent 90 degrees so that your lower legs are parallel to the floor. Place your fingers not he sides of your forehead and lift your shoulders off of the floor.
Twist your upper body tot he right as you pull your right knee in as fast as you can until it touches your left wrist. Simultaneously straighten your left leg.
Return to the starting position and repeat on the right.
Place a bench under and perpendicular to a pullup bar. Hang from the bar, directly above the bench with your legs to one side, feet together and knees slightly bent.
Without changing the bends in your knees or elbows, lift your legs over the bench to the opposite side.
Hanging Oblique Raise
Grasp a pullup bar with an overhand grip and hang from it at arm’s length. Lift your legs until our hips and knees are bent at 90 degrees. Raise your right hip toward your right armpit.
Pause, and then return to the starting position.
Assume a standard pushup position. As you lower your body toward the floor, lift your right foot off of the floor, swing your leg out sideways and try to touch your knee to your elbow.
Reverse the movement as you push your body back to the starting position.
TRX Pendulum Swing
Place both feet toes first into the foot cradles of a TRX. Press into a plank position, keeping your body in a straight line from your head to your heels. Swing your legs to the left, allowing your hips to rotate slightly.
Bring your knees to your elbow, pause, and then reverse the movement and perform the same on the opposite side.
Half-Bench Single-Arm Press
This seems like a chest exercise, but it’s more than that: By pushing half your torso off your bench, your obliques and abs essentially must serve as the bench, tightening and bracing to give you a platform from which to bench. That’s a ton of anti-rotation work and oblique stress on every single rep.