A weak core will be your sticking point as you progress on your heavy compound exercises if you don't train it along the way.
3 Functional Exercises For Unmatched Core Strength
These abdominal exercises aren't the ones you'll find hyped over and over again in a mens bodybuilding or fitness magazine. Sit-ups, oblique twists and the plethora of other basic exercises they publish time and time again for 'insane core strength' and a 'shredded six pack' are inferior to the following 3 exercises...
Although a couple of the exercises below are relatively advanced there are basic progressions that're effective, challenging and will build up your core strength until you're able to perform the advanced level exercise with strict form (this is important! Don't go straight for the advanced variation with bad form when you've glossed over the basic variations).
Hanging Leg Raise
Keep your legs dead straight while hanging from your horizontal bar while ensuring your core is tight and your elbows remain straight (there is to be no bending of the elbows) lift your legs up and continue past the 90 degree L variation until your feet touch the pull-up bar, if you look at the shape of your body in the fully contracted position of a complete range of motion hanging straight leg raise it would resemble that of the letter ‘V’.
Floor straight leg raise (beginner variation #1)
Lay down on your back with your legs extended out in front of you.
Tense your core and keep your legs completely straight as you bring your legs up towards your chest – hold and squeeze for a second to feel the contraction before returning your legs to their extended position, do not let your legs touch the ground between reps.
Hanging bent knee raise (beginner variation #2)
Hold onto a horizontal bar (a pull-up bar, tree branch or piece of playground equipment) I think you’ll find a slightly wider grip to be easier as a beginner.
While keeping your core tight bend your knees and lift them up as high as possible.
Slowly lower your legs back down – the key to avoid swinging on the negative (downwards) portion of each rep is to consciously think about keeping your abs tight for the entire duration.
Tip: you want to form at minimum an L shape with your body, the higher up you can get your knees the better, but aim for at least 90 degrees.
Check out my comprehensive guide to hanging leg raises (including more beginner friendly variations!) here.
Dragon Flag (Bruce Lee's Ab Exercise of Choice!)
Made famous by Bruce Lee and Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV, the dragon flag is a killer abdominal exercise that builds immense functional strength in the entire abdominal region.
The movement involves lowering your body as one unit and holding it horizontal to the floor with only your shoulders and upper back supporting your weight – almost resembling a draw bridge.
This exercise is far harder than it looks, give it a try it's humbling!
Find a suitable spot that has a pole, column or anchor of some kind that you can wrap your arms around.
Form a straight line with your torso and your legs, don't hinge your hips at all.
Lower your body slightly below vertical while maintaining control of your torso.
Continue to practise the negative portion of the dragon flag until you're able to lower yourself in a controlled fashion for the entirety of several reps.
The upwards (or concentric) portion of the dragon flag is a step-up in terms of difficulty...
Start from a position where your body is already slightly raised, and utilizing your core strength raise your body the remainder of the way until vertical.
Once you've practised both portions of the dragon flag enough to confidently perform each individually it's time to throw them together into one fluid movement.
A fantastic isometric hold that doesn't require much space at all.
The plank has literally an endless array of variations - from one arm, one leg planks to stability ball planks, planks with additional resistance... you name it there's always a challenging, engaging spin to throw in the works to make your planks that much harder.
Basic Plank Form
Place your palms under your shoulders and place your forearms on the ground.
Lift your hips and support your body via your forearms.
Your head, back and feet should all form a straight line (look down or slightly in front to ensure your neck remains in a neutral position).
Hold the plank for upwards of 1 minute per rep.
- Squeeze your glutes to stabilize the bottom half of your body.
- Avoid locking your knees by keeping them slightly bent.
- Actively contract your shoulder blades to pack the shoulders down in relation to your torso.
- Tighten your abdominals by drawing your belly button toward your spine.
Creating Your Core Workout
"I've got 3 exercises... now what do I do?"
There's many different ways to structure an abdominal workout, variations I often perform include:
Reps For Time
Pick an exercise and set a time limit.
200 hanging leg raises
Start a timer and attempt to at least meet (ideally beat) 200 reps of the hanging leg raise in 15 minutes.
Your timeframes and rep choice for these workouts should be tough, however not unreachable.
Rounds For Time
Pick a couple of exercises, a number of rounds and a rep range, such as:
5 rounds of:
10 hanging leg raises
5 dragon flags
Perform 5 rounds of the above as fast as possible, use a timer to record your score.
Choose an abdominal exercise and perform a Tabata block or two.
1 Tabata 'block' consists of 8 rounds of 20 seconds work, 10 seconds rest.
Core cardio will bring you closer to that goal by combining high intensity cardio intervals with lower intensity abdominal exercises.
The intervals you choose to follow for this core cardio depends on your current conditioning. Here’s what I’d recommend:
30 seconds HIIT cardio
1 minute abdominals
45 seconds HIIT cardio
1 minute abdominals
1 minute HIIT cardio
1 minute abdominals
No rest is to be taken between rounds as the low intensity of your abdominal training will allow you sufficient recovery time to regain your breath prior to your next round of HIIT cardio.
For this cardio, you want to be giving it 100%, therefore, sprints or fast jump roping are my exercises of choice.