A PT’s Guide To A Stronger Core

On a mission to get a flatter, more toned stomach? According to the experts, there’s more to it than endless sit-ups and crunches. From the best kit to nutritional tips, we asked some of the industry’s leading PTs to share their words of wisdom.
By Tor WEST /

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Start By Knowing The Signs

“Just because you can hold a plank for a minute doesn’t mean you have a strong core. Nor does having visible abs mean your midsection is strong. There are various ways your body can tell you your core is weak. There are obvious ones, like poor posture, slouching and being unable to sit up straight at a meeting or at a table for a prolonged period. You may also notice that you experience niggles in your back or shoulders, especially if you do lots of exercise. If you do moves like planks or side planks and aren’t correctly engaging your core, your back and shoulder muscles can take on additional load, which can lead to them becoming overworked and injured. Classic signs also include tight hip flexors and back twinges when bending.” – Monique Eastwood, celebrity trainer & founder of the Eastwood Movement Method 

Lift Heavier Than You Think

“If you want to tone your stomach and build lean muscle, you’ll need to go beyond using your own bodyweight as resistance. The core is like any other muscle in your body – it responds positively to resistance from a dumbbell or kettlebell. Using additional resistance is the most effective way to strengthen and tone, so approach core training in the same way you would your legs or arms. Don’t be afraid to skip the yoga mat workout and use a heavy kettlebell or set of weights instead. When it comes to kit, a resistance ball (also referred to as a slam ball) is a great way to mix things up as it generates force from your core muscles. You can also try using a Swiss ball. Cable machines and resistance bands also provide resistance and are great for easily adjustable tension that can easily be levelled up.” – Ollie Thompson, freelance PT

Aim For Variety

“Crunches, sit-ups and leg raises can all be effective ways to tone the stomach, but they’re essentially variations of the same exercise. They are what PTs call spinal flexion core exercises – i.e. closing the gap between your chest and hips. Ideally, focus on movements such as crunches as well as exercises that resist bringing the chest to the hips, such as a plank. Also, include exercises that focus on rotation and anti-rotation of the core – cable woodchoppers are a good example of this, or any work done with a cable – as well as side planks, which focus on lateral movement.” – Ollie

CRUNCHES, SIT-UPS and LEG-RAISES are all great, but they’re essentially VARIATIONS of the same exercise.

Think About The Bigger Picture

“Doing 1,000 sit ups a day won’t get you a great set of abs – neither will endless planking. The human body doesn’t work that way. Spot reducing fat is a myth so just focusing on your core when exercising won’t magically burn fat from around your stomach. The cornerstone of any body transformation is focusing on building muscle and losing fat. Despite countless studies and increased media awareness, many women still fear weights, but when you build muscle by lifting weights, you naturally burn more calories due to an elevated metabolic rate, as well as getting leaner and looking better. Plus, when you take a 360° approach to getting lean, this will naturally include your core.” – Emily Servante, PT at Ultimate Performance 

Breathe Well

“While technique matters, so does how you breathe. One common mistake when doing abdominal work is holding your breath. While it may feel easier to hold your breath when working through a challenging exercise, breathing well can lead to better results. When you connect your exhale to the strenuous part of your movement, it will help engage your pelvic floor and deep transverse abdominals, helping draw the belly button in and training your abs to be flat. It doesn’t matter how many ab exercises you’re doing – if you’re not recruiting the correct muscles, then you’re wasting your time.” – Nathalie Clough, Pilates instructor & founder of Lifebody

Clean Up Your Diet

“Abs really are made in the kitchen. The key to unlocking a more defined stomach is to clean up your diet and base your workouts on compound movements (exercises that work multiple muscle groups simultaneously, such as a squat) and progressive overloading (slowly increasing the weights you’re using) to get stronger. To visibly strengthen your muscles, you need a diet rich in quality protein, which encourages the body to tap into your fat stores. Aim for 2.2g to 2.8g of protein per kilogram of your bodyweight for the best results.” – Emily 

If you’re looking to TONE YOUR STOMACH and build LEAN MUSCLE, you’ll need to go beyond using your own bodyweight as resistance.

Try Pilates

“It takes a lot less time to build strength and definition in your core than you may think, particularly if you are working from scratch. Incorporate one Pilates workout – even a short one – into your weekly workout and you’ll notice your abs and body change within a month. Don’t live near a studio? Get into the habit of practicing the Pilates ‘hundred’ while your kettle is boiling in the morning. The Hundred is a classic Pilates mat exercise – it’s done on the small of your back with your head and legs slightly off the floor. The Hundred is named after the number of beats your arms make during the exercise as you pump them up and down. Do this every day and you’ll start to feel lifted and less slouchy within two weeks.” – Nathalie 

Be Patient

“As with any physical change, consistency and patience are key. Building a stronger core is no different. Incorporate core work into your sessions two or three times a week – remembering to always keep the body challenged and not being afraid to use heavier weights than you think – and you will see noticeable improvements within one to two months. Don’t be afraid to use resistance to encourage strength building – using equipment such as weights, bands and cables is a no brainer.” – Ollie


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