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Functional ab workouts are being praised for building stronger abdominals – but do they work?

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Worried that your core isn’t getting any stronger despite how many crunches you do? Experts say functional core workouts don’t just sculpt killer abs, they also build stronger cores. Here, they explain how.

Training abs is considered such a fundamental part of any fitness routine that most gym chains have whole workout classes dedicated to helping you sculpt a killer core. But, training your abs goes beyond having a six-pack; a strong core is the foundation of better movement.

Flo Seabright, PT, nutritionist and founder of the FBF Collective, says the importance of having a strong centre can’t be overstated. “A strong core is often the foundation of a strong body. Building strength in this area will help improve posture and reduce aches and pains brought about by a sedentary lifestyle, improve stability, balance and can significantly improve your training and performance,” she explains.

Considering how important core strength is to most basic movements, it’s no wonder that core workouts focusing on function rather than aesthetic are trending so heavily on social media. The functional core training hashtag on TikTok has over 70 million views. We asked the experts just what they are and how you can add them to your next workout.

What are functional core workouts?

If functional core exercises look markedly different to the standard ab workouts you’re used to seeing and performing, it’s because they are. 

According to Emma McQuaid, personal trainer at BLK BOX and CrossFit athlete, “Functional core training is about power, strength and stabilisation, and life demands that we brace and stabilise. The exercises allow you to practise movement that provides optimal motion for daily tasks. You work more muscles with functional core training than crunches, and you work in a larger range of motion utilising more muscles.”

Are functional core exercises better than traditional ab exercises?

Yes. At least, that’s what Chloe Trigg, head of strength and conditioning at BLOK says. She explains: “ Functional core work is better as this replicates movement in everyday life, which is where you want your core to be strongest and most familiar with. Sit-ups can be used too repetitively, causing lower back pain as form deteriorates.”

However, Rachel Bower, coach at Camden Boxing Club and head of Amateur Boxing, believes that ab exercises that focus on isolating and fatiguing one specific muscle at a time can still help you achieve a better midsection, saying: “The key is really to perform a combination of both functional training and more traditional core moves such as sit-ups and Russian twists as part of your training. Though I would argue as a boxing coach that functional training would probably take higher precedence, simply because you are likely to be performing movements in a way that challenges the core group of muscles as a whole.”

Functional core exercises you should add to your workout routine

Dead bugs

If you’re a beginner, Seabright says the dead bug is a great introduction to functional training that allows you to engage your core without worrying about balance or weight, and “it is an excellent way to build strength in the core for those who struggle with lower back pain.”

How to do the dead bug:

  1. Start by lying on your back. Lift your feet off the ground so that your hips and knees are at 90°.
  2. Lift the arms over the chest so they are pointing towards the ceiling, about shoulder width apart.
  3. Make sure your lower back is flattened into the floor and that it stays like this throughout the whole exercise.
  4. As a beginner, you can start by just extending one leg at a time. While doing so, make sure the rest of your body stays completely still and the leg you are extending doesn’t go too low to the floor. You should feel the core working hard.
  5. Then return to the starting position before switching sides.
  6. If this feels easy try extending the opposite arm to the leg at the same time. Once this feels easy you can also add in a pilates ball and hold it between your knees and hands throughout the entire movement for an extra challenge!

Farmer’s carries

For those used to completing ab workouts at the end of their routines, Trigg suggests adding farmer’s carries as a finisher. She says, they “target abs when they’re at their most switched on.”

How to do farmer’s carries:

  1. Holding a kettlebell or dumbbell in one hand, stand tall with shoulders back and chest proud
  2. Ensure your weight is by your side but not pulling your shoulder down
  3. Walk with purpose, keeping core engaged and glutes activated
  4. Change hands after 30s
  5. Start small with three sets of 30s on each arm, choose a weight you can hold for the full 30s without losing form or grip, maintaining a strong neutral position. Then as you start to progress, you can increase the weight or time you are moving for.

Backwards sled drags

If you want a more advanced move and have a gym at your disposal, Emily Servante, PT and global education manager at Ultimate Performance, says the backwards sled drag is a must-try. The trainer says it won’t just give you a stronger core, it “may also help rehabilitate injuries due to the low impact and high repetitions, helping to strengthen the muscles around the knee.”

How to do backward sled drags:

  1.  You’ll need a sled that you can load with your desired weight. Make sure the handles or straps are attached correctly and can handle the force of your pull.
  2. With a slight lean backwards, plant the toes first and drive backwards with alternating steps. If you keep the weight quite light, you should be able to remain on the balls of your feet through the entire movement. If the weight is heavy you should still plant the balls of your feet first, but go toe to heel. In both cases, you need to move your feet as fast as you can.
  3. Keep your feet forward – it’s important to make sure they don’t start pointing outward like a duckwalk.
  4. Finally, everything above the waist needs to stay still. Once fatigue kicks in, it’s very tempting for the upper body to start rocking side to side to aid those burning quads.
  5. If you don’t have a sled, you can attach the weight to a dipping belt around your waist and follow the above steps for the same effect.

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Image: Getty / Eugenio Marongiu

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