Let’s face it, we all want to have that washboard stomach. Wearing a bikini or no shirt at all on the beach has more of a confidence and an ego boost when you aren’t trying to hide your midsection. More importantly than the appearance, though, is the strength of your core section.
These muscles are responsible for lifting, sitting, standing, pushing and pulling. Without the core muscles, we couldn’t walk, stand up straight or even lift our arms over our heads. This is why your workout must include reps that focus on your core.
One of the easiest methods to focus on a core workout is on leg day. Adding these ten leg exercises to your routine will ensure that your core is growing stronger, more stable and better looking.
What are the Core Muscles and What do They do?
The core muscles wrap around our entire truck, or core. The extend up our sides, into our chest and down into our pelvic region. Each muscle relies on the ones next to it, and they all work together to keep us stable and moving.
Without our core muscles, we couldn’t stand, walk, lift, stretch, lean or bend at the waist. Let’s take a look at the major muscle groups in our trunk area.
The Abdominal Group
The abdominal muscles, or abs, are flattery muscles. This means they, like biceps and triceps, are generally focuses on for our physical appearance.
These include the rectus abdominis and the transverse abdominis. These two muscles groups allow us to draw our belly in towards our spine (think to "flex your abs”), the primary job of the transverse abdominis.
They also allow what is called trunk flexion, or bending forward at the waist. This is also the same motion as curling up when you are laying down.
The abdominal group allows you to bend to the side and stand up from bending at the side where they also rely on the internal obliques.
The Oblique Group
The obliques are made up of two large muscles that run up our sides from our pelvis to our pectorals. The internal obliques and the external obliques have a few jobs.
The first job, that of the external obliques is to allow us to bend to the side. This movement also relies on the erector spinae and the rectus abdominis muscles on that side. When standing from the side bend, the other sides muscles are used including the pectoralis major.
The two obliques work together to allow us to twist at the waist. Each is pushing and pulling off one another to form the movement.
Erector Spinae Group
These muscles include the longissimus, spinalis, and iliocostalis muscles. Their primary job is to keep the spine straight and sturdy. However, they have a secondary job that helps us sit, stand and remain upright from a forward or backward bend.
All of the muscle groups work together, relying on one another and the major abdominal ligaments to keep the spine supported, the core upright on the lower trunk and give us the ability to lift our arms, move our legs, and keeping our spine stable while we move.
10 Best Leg Exercises
When working the core muscles you rely on so many body parts that it truly is a full body workout. However, the most beneficial time is during your leg work out day when a lot of the leg exercises can be tweaked slightly to allow extra work for the core as well. Let’s have a look.
Lunges, by themselves, allow you to work the major muscle groups of the legs by using long, steady strides, dipping your trunk before taking the next step.
To work the core, you just have to add weights. The lung stays the same but holding dumbbells at your side make your core work to maintain your balance.
Pick a weight that is comfortable to hold for an extended period. Too light and there won’t be enough strain on the core group to keep you upright. Too much and your legs will give out preventing you from finishing.
Once you have your dumbbells in hand hold them straight down by your side. It is important that your arms remain as motionless as possible. The entire exercise is done with your legs and your core muscles.
From a standing position, you will lung forward one leg at a time, alternating your legs. You should step out as far as you can without leaning your trunk forward. The step should be slow and managed.
Once the forward foot is planted firmly, lift the back foot and take another step forward. Repeat this process five steps forward and five steps back. Once you are back one set is complete.
You should complete three sets.
During the exercise, be sure to keep your trunk upright and motionless. Using your obliques to keep you from leaning to the side and your abdominal muscles from preventing you from leaning forward or backward. Clenching your buttocks and abdominal muscles will assist in the workout and keeping you in form.
Single-Leg Dead Lift
This exercise focuses on the abdominal and erector spinae groups. You will be bending and standing to work these muscles while standing on one leg to work your legs at the same time.
You don’t need weights for this to be effective and until you are comfortable with the process, you should avoid using them. Adding weights will put more focus on your core, though, and should be added over time.
Stand straight with your feet together. Hold the weights (or just your fists) in front of your thighs, arms straight. In one motion lean forward, keeping your back straight. Let your arms fall towards the ground while your leg (also straight) extends behind you.
The motion should be smooth and controlled, like a pendulum. When your shoulders are parallel with the ground (and your leg, too), reverse the motion until you are standing again.
Repeat this process ten times for a single set. Switch legs and complete another set. Continue your set and leg swaps until you have completed three sets with each leg.
Overhead Barbell Squat
This exercise is done with a barbell (weighted as you progress in strength) lifted overhead to focus attention on your core. While working your quads and glutes, it will also put attention on your entire core muscle groups.
Stand with your legs shoulder width apart grabbing the barbel with your hands naturally at your side. Your hands should be just outside your legs. Lift the barbell overhead, locking your elbows.
Squat down keeping your feet planted and your back straight. Your chest should be out and your head up. Lower your body until your thighs are parallel with the floor and slowly raise back to the starting position.
Repeat the squats ten times per set and complete three sets with a small break between each one.
Heels to Heaven
This variation of a hip raise focuses on the calf muscles while blasting the core and in particular the abs.
There are no weights needed for this exercise, though if you find that you can go on for a while, you can add ankle weights or hold a weight on your hips.
Begin lying flat on your back and bring your knees up until the soles of your feet are flat on the ground. Your arms should be resting at your sides, on the ground. If you are holding a weight, it should be positioned as low on your hips as possible without causing interference in the motions.
Raise one leg until it is straight up and perpendicular with the ground. Using your core muscles, lift your hips off the ground as high as you can, pushing the heel of your raised foot into the air. Repeat until exhaustion or 30 reps. Switch feet and continue for another til exhaustion set.
For this squat variation, you can use a dumbbell, a kettle ball or even a medicine ball for the weight. You want to make sure, though, that the weight doesn’t move.
This squat is very similar to the Overhead Barbell Squat above. The starting position is the same. Instead of lifting a barbell over your head you will lift a dumbbell to your chin. Your arms should be tight against your body the weight positioned under your chin, so the thumbs are resting against your collarbone.
Squat as normal, keeping your feet flat on the ground and your back straight. If you want to focus more on the obliques and back muscles, you can shift the weight to one side each set, holding it over the shoulder instead of under the chin.
Another variation is to hold the weight in one hand down to your side forcing you to work harder on that side to keep your back straight.
These squats do not require a weight. However, if they become too easy for you, you can add weight later. If you do add weight, you can follow either of the variations from the Dumbbell Squat above.
Position a box, crate or bench behind you at the level you are comfortable with. You should be able to sit on the edge of the box easily. Your hands should rest on your hips with your legs shoulder-width apart.
Squat as normal except you pushing your hips backward so you sit on the box instead of squatting in front of it. Using your core muscles, you will lift your butt off of the box to the standing position. Repeat for ten reps per set, continue through three sets.
This lunge requires slower movements. Proper form is required in this more advanced exercise. It is suggested you do not use any weights until your body and muscles know what they should be doing.
As with the Weighted Lunge above you will take the same starting position. Instead of lunging forward you will step backward from toe to heel. Just as the name suggests, your are lunging backward. However, you should ensure that your core remains stationary and you are not leaning forward to take a longer step. Complete three sets of ten reps.
Side Leg Raises
For this exercise, you can use a band for resistance, or no weights at all. This seemingly simple exercise will focus only on the glutes and obliques resulting in a serious blast to these muscles. Go slow.
You will lay on your side with your feet together and raise your top leg without the bottom leg coming off the ground. Your bottom arm should be resting on the elbow and forearm, so your body is raised off the ground from shoulder to the bottom of your rib cage. Your top arm can use the hand on the floor in front of you for support.
Lift the top leg as high and straight as you can, and slowly bring it back down. If you are using bands for resistance, they should be low on the ankles. Complete three sets of 25 to 30 reps.
Medicine Ball Squats (Heart-Beat and Toss-Pause Squats)
The final two moves are more advanced and should be added when you are comfortable with the Weighted Squat movement and need more of a challenge. The first is the Heart-Beat Squat and the second is the Toss-Pause Squat.
The movements here are exactly the same as the Weighted Squat. The difference is you will be holding a medicine ball instead of a dumbbell.
For the Heart-Beat Squat you will follow the exact same motion except at the bottom of the squat you will extend your arms straight out in front of you and bring them back to your chest before raising to standing position.
The Toss-Pause Squat is exactly the same movement as the Heart-Beat Squat. The sole exception here is you actually toss the medicine ball to a partner, then pause in the squat until it is tossed back.