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The best ab exercises for a stronger core

No crunches or situps needed.

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Abs, schmabs. Despite the standing reputation as the hallmark of fitness, a toned belly doesn't really mean much (just that your body fat percentage is low enough to show your abdominal muscles). 

People should focus more on improving core strength than achieving a six-pack. This article won't teach you how to get abs (for that, head here) -- but it will teach you how to get a stronger core, thereby increasing your overall fitness, physical capabilities and longevity. 

Side effects may include visible abdominal muscles and elation at the fact that you never have to do crunches ever again. 

Related: The 3 hardest workout moves and how to master them

1. Do more compound exercises 

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Squats challenge your core more than crunches ever will. 

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Compound exercises represent the single most effective class of workout movements anyone can do. Also called multijoint exercises, these moves engage several muscle groups at once and require complete stabilization of the core. 

Examples of basic compound movements include: 

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Pullups
  • Pushups
  • Lunges
  • Shoulder presses 

If you're more advanced, these compound movements can challenge your core even more: 

Many cardio and HIIT movements also engage multiple joints and muscle groups:

For the best improvements to core strength, I recommend focusing on the first group -- basic compound movements -- and using weights that challenge you. You can use bands, dumbbells, kettlebells or a barbell with plates to add resistance. 

One other tip: Don't rush through weighted compound exercises. Adding tempos, or specific speed "prescriptions" to your reps (for example, descending for three seconds on a squat), forces you to engage your core for longer and helps you focus on your technique. 

2. Practice isometric core work 

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Planks will improve your core strength in no time. 

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During an isometric exercise, your muscles contract but do not move. "Isometric" comes from "isos" (equal) and "metria" (measuring), and it means that opposing muscles exert the same amount of force unto each other, resulting in no lengthening or contracting. 

Also called static strength training, isometric exercises profoundly improve core strength because they train the exact function your core needs to excel at: remain stable under duress. Isometric core work teaches you to tighten and engage your core muscles and create a strong support base for your extremities. 

Add these isometric holds to your core strength routine: 

3. Do single-leg and single-arm exercises

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Challenge one side of your body at a time to improve core strength. 

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Next time you work out, try this: See how heavy a dumbbell you can lift above your head with your right arm and then your left arm. If you're like most people, one side will present more of a struggle. Muscle imbalances like this are common, but can be fixed through unilateral (one-sided) exercises, which require you to engage your core muscles through an extended range of motion while unbalanced by your body weight or a weighted object, such as a dumbbell.  

Try out these single-leg exercises to improve core strength: 

For your upper body, give these a go: 

Notice how all the moves in this section are still multijoint, free-weight exercises -- unilateral movements on machines, such as leg extensions, won't do much for your core strength. 

Creating a core strength program

A well-rounded core strength program includes all of the above exercises. If your main goal is to get a strong core, the bulk of your workouts should consist of weighted compound exercises. Add isometric holds in between sets, or bookend your workout with isometric work. Sprinkle in bodyweight, HIIT-like compound movements a couple times each week for a cardiovascular boost

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.