7 Exercises For a Strong and Stunning Midsection

Core training is always a hot topic. If we're honest, we all want that toned midsection for Summer, and from a health perspective, a strong core is vital. Especially as we get older and especially if we're stuck at a desk all day. Posture, balance, lower back health — they all relate to the strength of your core.

The core is more than just your abs. The rectus abdominis (your six-pack) — what we typically think of as the core — is only the top layer. Well-defined abs do not necessarily mean your core is strong — they just mean you have low body fat.

The core includes deeper muscles: your transversus abdominis, which lies under the rectus abdominis and together with the obliques acts like a corset on the sides of your body, providing stability, and then there are pelvic floor muscles holding your internal organs in, back muscles holding your spine in place, and the diaphragm, the main muscle of respiration. That's your core!

Related: Skip the Squats and Build Your Butt With These 5 Moves

All this makes it important to have varied training to strengthen the core maximally.

Here's my core training program that takes you from the basics to advanced in simple, progressive steps.

With my clients, we do one or two core exercises each session. I recommend you perform the Hollow and Dead Bug as part of your warmup, and then pick your favorite two exercises for after your main workout.

Bracing your core. Dr. Stuart McGill — a world-renowned biomechanist, who has conducted the most in-depth research into the core — advises that, whenever you perform "core training," you learn to brace your abs. Bracing is a much more effective technique compared with pulling your navel in. (Low Back Disorders, Stuart McGill, 2007)

One way I help my clients understand this concept is to imagine you're about to get tickled. You instinctively tighten your abs and waist; you roll your hips up and contract your rib cage down a bit. This is the same action as bracing your abs. We'll learn to do this more with the first exercise . . .

Polina Liu


This exercise teaches you to activate your deeper abdominal muscles while bracing. Do 10 reps to start.

  • Start off on your back, breathe in, and lift your arms up, pointing them toward the ceiling.
  • Bend your knees to around 90 degrees.
  • Exhale slowly, and forcefully brace your core while lowering your arms above your head and extending your legs out. Ensure your lower back is pressed firmly into the ground.
  • Inhale, return to the start position, and repeat.
Dead Bug
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Dead Bug

The Dead Bug teaches you to control your limbs and direct their movement through your core. Do 10 reps to start with, and build up from there.

  • Make sure your lower back is pressed firmly into the ground. You can roll a thin towel and place it under your lower back to feel where you need to press down on.
  • Exhale fully as you lower your right arm and left leg. Brace your core!
  • Keep your neck relaxed. You might want to rest your head on a pillow or rolled-up towel for support.
  • Repeat, switching arms and legs.
  • Keep it slow — inhale deeply, exhale fully and slowly, and keep pressing your lower back into the ground. Extend and retract with control.
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The Plank teaches you how to stabilize your body with your core — it's a very common exercise nowadays, but it's worth focusing on some finer details to make it safer and more effective. Hold the pose for a time, and aim to work up to 60 seconds. The simpler version is performed on your elbows. For more of a challenge, hold the Plank on your palms.

  • Start off in the Plank position, and brace your core.
  • Keep your hips "tucked under" — don't allow your butt to stick up in the air or sag toward the ground.
  • Maintain a flat back.
  • Keep your shoulder blades pulled down and protracted — don't let them stick out behind you.
  • Squeeze your glutes hard. Not only does this help keep your back safe, but the added intensity is also a great way to make the Plank more challenging.
  • Squeeze your thighs hard too. All of this adds to the stability of your lower body while making the exercise more challenging and effective.
  • Keep breathing! You might need to take shallow breaths, but always keep breathing.
Superman Plank
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Superman Plank

When you can hold the standard Plank for more than 60 seconds, this is a great progression to try. The Superman Plank starts off with your arms extended about 45 degrees in front of you and on your palms rather than your forearms. All the same rules of the Plank apply, but you'll find yourself holding the Superman Plank for a much shorter time — start off with 15 seconds, ensuring that your lower back is neutral at all times. If you feel your hips start to sag, it's time to stop that rep. Work up to hold for as long as possible. If you can reach 60 seconds, you deserve superhero status!

Cable/Band Hold
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Cable/Band Hold

This is a great exercise for toning your obliques — the muscles on the side of your torso.

  • If you're using a band, attach it to a solid post, or if you're using the cable stack, set it to chest height.
  • Stand with your side to the band or stack, tiwst to grab the handle; pull the handle, untwisiting your torso, until the handle straight in front of you. Keep your arms straight, stance solid, and fight the pull of the cable stack or band to twist your torso.
  • Hold for 15 to 30 seconds for each rep.
  • Keep shoulders down, and remember to breathe!

For the next set of exercises, you'll need sliders — you can use a slideboard, Valslides, or furniture sliders. Alternatively, you can wear socks and train on wooden floors for a similar effect.

Single-Arm Slide Out
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Single-Arm Slide Out

These exercises are a great progression from the Plank. The addition of moving your body while holding the Plank position really hits your upper abs. Do two to three sets of five to eight reps each.

  • On all fours, rest your hands on the sliders.
  • Keep your core braced while sliding your left hand forward as far as you can while maintaining a flat lower back. Maintain your core stability as you pull your left hand back to the starting position. Then repeat on the other side to complete one rep.
  • Do not allow your hips to sag! This is a tough exercise, and you might need to modify it by starting on your knees rather than your feet.

If you want a real challenge, you can do these on a suspension training system like the TRX!

Body Saw
Polina Liu

Body Saw

This is a really challenging exercise as there is constant tension on your core, so perform three to five reps for two or three sets.

  • Adopt the Plank position with your feet on the sliders. Brace your abs and legs, and then pull your entire body forward, pivoting around the shoulders. The movement starts from your upper body — your legs don't assist at all.
  • Go as far as you can while maintaining a flat lower back. It's essential your hips don't sag.
  • The body must move as a connected unit.
  • Hold for a brief moment, and then push yourself backward, past the start position, as far as you can go. The same rules apply. The movement comes from the upper body and your legs don't assist. Always maintain a flat back.

Finally, remember that you can't out-train a bad diet — eating properly is equally important!