BELIEVE IT OR not, you can build rock-solid core strength without standing one-legged on a ball while pressing pink dumbbells. A century or so ago, practically every guy who trained with weights had a strong core, which he got without using new age equipment, doing hundreds of crunches, or joining a Pilates class. It’s time you learned the truth about what the core is and how it should be trained for health, performance, and eye-popping abs.

Core concepts

Though commonly used to refer to the abs and lower-back muscles collectively (considered the epicenter of the body), the term “core” actually applies to several muscles throughout the upper and lower body. The transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis (your six-pack muscle), internal obliques, multifidus, spinal erectors, lats, glutes, and traps can be considered core muscles.

They all work together, often simultaneously, to stabilize and support the spine. Since the spinal cord is the main avenue for sending messages to the muscles throughout your body, the safer your body senses that it is the more comfortable it feels sending those messages out and the more clearly they’re received.

Building a strong core is the first step toward making maximal gains in strength and power, and performing any kind of skilled athletic movement. Strong supporting muscles around the spine also reduce lower-back pain, as well as the risk for lower-back injury. Finally, since the core encompasses all the abdominal muscles that make up that aesthetic six-pack look, it’s the foundation of a ripped midsection (though you may need to clean up your diet to see it).

Nevertheless, a well-defined set of abs does not mean a strong core. So how can you tell if your core is in shape? One of the most basic, easy, and effective methods to test core strength is the plank. If you’ve ever taken a yoga class (or listened to your lady talk about one), this move should be familiar. Simply get down on your hands and knees as if you were about to perform a pushup, then bend your elbows 90° so that you’re resting your forearms flat on the floor.

Keep your eyes focused on the floor and your hips braced—your body should form one straight line. Hold the position for as long as you can. (As time elapses you’ll feel all the above-mentioned core muscles squeezing.) If you can hold the plank for two minutes or more without breaking form or experiencing pain, your core is reasonably strong. If you can only hold the plank for between one and two minutes, practice it whenever you get a chance and work to improve it over time. Also, limit the loads you use in your training, and concentrate more on bodyweight exercises.

Start using more one-legged exercises in your workouts, and concentrate on keeping perfect form throughout. Do not attempt any heavy lifts until your plank time improves drastically.

Beware: If your core is weak, you not only severely compromise the amount of strength and muscle you can build in your workouts, but you also risk serious injury lifting heavy weights or doing any exercise that loads the lower back. Take our core training tips seriously, and you’ll ensure safe and steady progress for as long as you train.