Contrary to popular belief, your 'abs' and your 'core' are not one and the same.
Your abdominal muscles - which you're probably more familiar with - are the superficial ones that give you that coveted six-pack look and are primarily worked by flexing the spine. Think: sit-ups and crunches.
However, the core includes all of those abdominal muscles in addition to all of the muscles of the pelvic girdle, lower back and glutes. When the entire core works together, it has a corset effect and essentially works to stabilize the spine.
To train the core in it's entirety, you need to include a variety of exercises that address all the key components - flexing the spine, extending the spine (back extension and reverse hyperextension variations), extending the hips (glute bridges and hip thrust variations), twisting/rotating the torso and holding the spine still.
My go-to exercises, especially for females, are what we term 'anti extension'. In layman's terms this just means "bracing the spine". Think: plank variations and exercises that require you to keep the spine in a neutral position while the arms and legs are moving.
These exercises not only transfer really well into being functional for everyday life, but I find the pilates cue to "draw the bellybutton to the spine" really effective when it comes to creating that flat stomach look.
Here are my favourite core exercises:
1. Dead Bugs: 20 reps, alternating sides. 2-3 rounds.
This move fires up the entire core, front and back, and strengthens the contralateral muscular slings of the body. Great remedial exercise for pelvic control and addressing structural imbalance in the hips.
Progress the movement by holding dumbbells.
Lie on your back with neutral spine and arms and legs at right angles to the body – fingertips in line with the shoulders, knees on top of hips.
Extend opposite arm and leg away from you creating length on the diagonal, and focusing on keeping the spine in neutral throughout.
Make sure the knees don't come any further in than the hips so that the lower abs are always engaged, and that the arm movement is initiated from the lats. Alternate sides.
2. Kettle Bell Window Wipers: 20 reps. 2-3 rounds.
This move strengthens your obliques, core and legs whilst stretching the upper (thoracic) spine.
Lie on your back with your arms pinned out to the side by heavy kettlebells, palms facing up.
Pull your knees in towards your chest then lengthen the toes towards the ceiling. Think about squeezing the thighs together to engage the lower abs and pelvic floor. Bellybutton drawn to spine. Reach the legs over to the right lengthening the top hip and keeping the opposite shoulder on the ground. Draw the legs back to centre and reach to the other side.
3. Walk Outs. 10 reps. 2-3 rounds.
Make sure the reps are slow and controlled.
This move works the entire core and shoulder girdle. This movement is self limiting - the further out you walk, the more challenging it is.
Assume a push-up position with hands directly underneath shoulders and your body in a straight line from head to heels.
Brace your core by drawing the bellybutton to the spine. Slowly walk the hands out in front of you, pause, and then walk back in all the while keeping the glutes tight to support the lower back and prevent any sagging through the mid section.
4. Isometric Cable Hold. 30-60 secs each side. 2-3 rounds.
This move forces the spine to resist twisting and turning, strengthening the abs and protecting the lower back.
Set up a cable or resistance band at chest height. Kneel or stand perpendicular to the cable/band with glutes tight and back straight.
Keeping arms as straight as possible, grab the cable and bring both hands directly out in front of your chest. Hold for the duration, then switch sides.
5. Reverse Hyper Holds. 30-60 secs. 2-3 rounds.
This exercise is a fantastic way to strengthen the entire posterior chain with particular emphasis on the glutes and the hamstrings without placing undue stress on the lower back.
Set yourself up so that you are lying face down on a bench with your hip bones on the edge. Grip the bench in front of you to hold torso in position, then lift the legs off the floor and hold for the duration.
Legs should be as straight as possible, with feet turned out and flexed to engage the glutes. I suggest popping a resistance band around the ankles for more of a challenge. Try to keep the body straight and not hyper extended through the lower spine.
Alexa is an internationally published sports model, celebrity trainer and nutrition & lifestyle coach with over 15 years experience in the health and fitness industry. She currently runs the Voome program Fire Up, which aims to help women burn lots of calories while strengthening and shaping their muscles. You can follow her on Instagram @actionalexa.