Everywhere you look, someone is extolling the virtues of core training. But what does that actually mean, and why is it something you should be focusing on? In this guide, we’re going over the basics of core training and showing how anyone can make a massive difference to their training with some simple exercises & gym gear.
Best core training gear in 2021
"JTX's Freedom Air is ideal for toning your core (and pretty much everything else) and it's half the price of a Concept 2."
JTX Freedom Air
"Perfect for body weight and core exercises. Mirafit's bars can be positioned to any width."
"A solid sit-up bench that doesn't cost the earth and is easy to store? Yes please."
Body Revolution Kettlebells
"Kettlebell training and core workouts go hand-in-hand. Body Revolutions cool-looking cannon balls are tough and feel great to use."
"While your abs will feel like hell, your core will come on leaps and bounds with an ab wheel, and the Carver Pro is about the bestw we've seen."
What is this core thing?
Your core is, put most simply, all of the muscles around your midsection; the stomach, spine and upper hips.
The most obvious core muscles are the abdominals (abs,) but there are also two sets of obliques that run around your core like a belt, keeping everything where it should be, and the transverse abdominals and erector spinae, that connect everything to your spine and hold you steady and upright.
The fact that the core muscles are connected to almost everything else in your body suggests how important they are, and this is why it’s so vital to train them properly.
Is core training really necessary?
Your core is used in every single movement you make, from twisting as you get out of bed in the morning, all the way up to those big moves like hoisting double your bodyweight above your head. A strong core is essentially the foundation of fitness, which is why so many people focus on it so heavily.
There are many benefits to working on your ‘core’, in and outside of the gym. It’s not only essential to understand your core and train it, but impossible not to work on it once you start doing pretty much any home gym workout.
Core strength training benefits
So why bother? Here’s some pretty compelling reasons to spend time mastering core training going forwards:
- Increased functional fitness – which helps you in everyday tasks
- A super back – and less risk for back problems later in life
- Better overall health – Lowered chance of other health issues, like torn muscles, neck problems, even incontinence
- Getting stronger, faster – and more athletic too, as your core is used in every single exercise. Like, ever.
- Aesthetics – Almost everyone wants to look better, and there’s no denying that rippling abs really do help with that.
The best way to strengthen your core from home
So we’ve covered what this core thing is all about and looked at why it’s actually important. So, how exactly do we train our core? Luckily for all of us, there’s a huge amount of ways to exercise these most important muscles. You’ve likely already done some of them unless you’re a complete fitness virgin, but here are the main ones you can do in your home gym.
Method #1 – Rowing your way to core strength
Out of every cardio machine, the best one for the core is by far the rowing machine. Every single rep flexes your core muscles, and cranking up the resistance can leave you aching after a long session.
On top of the core benefits, regular training on a rowing machine can have a huge range of other benefits including:
- A rowing machine is a full-body workout that targets the legs, arms, and back
- Rowers can be used by anyone, at any level of fitness
- Rowing is a low impact, safe exercise that’s great for people with health issues
- A strong cardiovascular benefit
- It’s surprisingly fun, once you get into the rhythm
Like any of the core exercises or gear we’re talking about here, you’re not going to make much progress with poor form. This is especially true of rowing machines. Our guide on how to row properly will get you started the right way.
What’s a decent rowing machine for core strength?
One of the best rowing machines on the market at the moment is the Freedom Air, which is a professional level rower used in home gyms all over the UK. Another hugely popular machine is the good old Concept 2 (Amazon UK).
But we understand that the months-long waiting list and hefty price tag might not be for everyone, so you can check our list of the best Concept 2 alternatives to find the right rower for your needs.
Method #2 – Dips, leg raises and pull-ups
Do dips work your core?
Bodyweight exercises that force you to suspend your body weight and keep stable off the floor are some of the best ways to train your core because you’re working with your own weight.
Several sets of leg raises, dips and pull-ups are a fantastic method to train almost your entire body and require almost no equipment.
Pull-ups can be done almost anywhere with a door mounted pull up bar. Cheap, easy to set up and simple to store when not in use, bars like this hook over any standard door frame and safely hold several hundred pounds.
Dips and leg raises are powerful exercises for the core, and the best way to perform them is on specific dip bars, like these, which can be set up in seconds and moved around effortlessly. Alternatively, wall mounted dip bars can be securely screwed into any load-bearing wall, and are basically indestructible.
But the best option for a home gym is a power tower, which combines dip bars, pull up bars, and more. Alternatively, if you also lift (and you probably should,) a full power cage normally has a pull-up bar built-in, and the option for dip bars.
Recommended: Gravity Fitness’ Dip Bars (Amazon UK) are a dead easy way to add in some seriously-effective core work into your routine and because they’re separate, they’re easy to shove into a corner when you’re done.
Method #3 – Strengthen your core with incline sit-ups
Sit-ups have been a core training staple for years for good reason. They work. But for the best results, you should be doing sit-ups the right way.
Performing hundreds of standard sit-ups and crunches isn’t very efficient. For the best results, you should be using an incline bench for added resistance. On top of that, the increased range of motion and stability from the bench makes every rep that much more effective.
A good bench like this one from York Fitness will last for years if looked after, is simple to set up, pretty inexpensive, and served double duty as a lifting bench, meaning you can just as easily use it with a barbell or dumbbell.
Method #4 – Kettlebell core training
All the rage a few years back, kettlebells are still an incredible tool for effective full-body workouts that hit all of your muscles, but especially the core.
Kettlebells work your core so well because of their unique shape, which offsets the weight and forces you to stabilise yourself in a way that you don’t have to with other free weights.
There’s a whole list of exercises that hit your core hard with a kettlebell, including:
- Romanian Deadlifts
- Turkish Get-Ups
- Rack Carries
In our opinion, the best standard size for people who have a base of fitness is a 12kg weight like this one, which gives you enough weight to be challenging. For beginners, a better option is a starter set, like this by York Fitness, which has 4 options ranging from 2kg up to 8kg and allows progression at your own pace and changes in weight for harder exercises.
Method #5 – Stability balls
A stability ball can turn any normal exercise into a core blasting workout. They work by providing a slightly unstable surface that forces your body to recruit all of the smaller muscles that normally wouldn’t be used in an exercise, and studies have shown that a set of simple crunches or sit-ups on a stability ball is the third most effective way to target your abs, out of every exercise possible.
But they’re not just for your core. An exercise ball can also be used in Pilates, Yoga, for stretching, warming up and cooling down, and more. Plus, they’re really cheap, so can easily be added to any home gym without worrying about breaking the bank.
Method #6 – Ab wheels are great for core strength
I’m sure you’ve seen ab rollers on late-night TV, probably advertised by models with rippling muscles and pearly white smiles, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not an effective tool.
Used correctly, an ab roller will blast your entire core by isolating the muscles and forcing you into performing the most effective movements to flex and work it.
While it shouldn’t be your first choice, an ab roller is a fantastic way to put the finishing touches on your abs after a long session, and can easily be used for ten minutes a day just to polish up your abs and keep yourself in great shape.
Method #7 – Simple Bodyweight core exercises
This is probably the first thing most people think of when it comes to core strength, and unfortunately, it’s probably one of the least effective things.
Most people, going for abs, will do thousands of reps of sit-ups. We mentioned this earlier, and it just. Doesn’t. Work. One, because sit up and crunches aren’t particularly demanding exercises, and low resistance, high volume exercises (like hundreds of crunches) aren’t the best way to muscle growth, and two, because it’s so damn boring even a Buddhist monk would give up and go home.
You’re far better spending a little money and buying some tools to assist you in your quest for core strength. In the long run, it’s by far the better option.
Final thoughts on building your core at home
At the end of the day, the best core exercises are the ones you actually do. There’s a lot to be said for consistency, and it’s probably the most important thing when it comes to your health and fitness.
If you’ve got any hints or tips for our other readers, remember to leave them in the comments, and thanks for reading!
References & Further Reading
- NHS UK – 10-minute abs workout
- NCBI – A Pilot Study Of Core Stability And Athletic Performance
- Plos One – Effects of 8-week core training on core endurance
- Havard Health – The real-world benefits of strengthening your core
- BMJ – The efficacy of a supervised and a home-based core strengthening programme