Sports That Build a Strong Core

How to Get Great Abs Without the Sit-Ups

If you want to build great six-pack abs without doing traditional ab exercises, choose a sport that engages the core muscles aggressively. Sports that require the coordinated movement of the upper and lower body will naturally activate the muscles that stabilize the torso. This rotational movement is essential to generating power and force in the extremities.

Sports in which this movement is constant and repetitive will invariably build all of the muscles of the core, including the obliques, rectus abdominis, and transverse muscles. Many of the sports listed below also provide a cardio workout that helps burn excess fat. Having a lean body is part of the equation when building a strongly defined six-pack.



Blaine Wilson on the rings
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The rings just may be the ultimate ab exercise, and exercises like the Iron Cross (pictured) certainly show them off. Even though you may never be able to achieve such a move, all gymnastic exercises deliver amazing core strength.

Here are some of the gymnastic moves you can add to any workout program:



Woman playing Volleyball in Manhattan Beach
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Spiking, digging, and blocking a volleyball in mid-flight works the core and abs dynamically. When you see players awaiting the serve, their core muscles will invariably be taut and ready for explosive action. In order to spike, the upper body needs to tense and rotate sharply to deliver power to the shoulder and arm.

Similar rotational exercises can be performed at the gym, including stability ball roll-outs, cable oblique twists, and side planks.



man kayaking
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The abdominal rotation and powerful paddling motions ​of kayaking build the abdominal and core muscles as well as back, chest, and shoulders. The obliques are especially challenged as you make sharp hairpin turns or try to maintain balance against a heavy current. Kayaking also a great cardio workout to help burn fat.

Arguably more challenging is surf kayaking, which requires even stronger core stability to keep upright. While you need to be near the water to kayak, the cost of the board and paddle have become more affordable in recent years.



man swimming
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Imagine trying to swim without contracting your abs. You can't. In order to cut through the water, you need to stabilize the abdominals in order to maintain a streamlined, horizontal posture. A strong core also acts as the anchor from which to kick stronger and rotate left or right for each for arm stroke.

When it comes to strengthening the entire breadth of core muscles, speed does matter. Doing so not only burns calories faster, it keeps your abs and obliques tighter for longer. Paddling slowly forces your legs and arms to do most of the work rather than your core.


Cross-Country Skiing

A young woman skate skis near Moraine Lake, Banff National Park.
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Cross-country skate skiing not only builds incredible cardiovascular strength while burning hundreds of calories, but you'll also get a challenging core and upper body workout at the same time. The main drawback to cross-country skiing is that you can only do it during the winter season. Off-season, you can keep in racing form with a cross-country elliptical machine.

To maintain balance, weight shift, and timing, perform a trunk circuit of exercises, engaging the abs from the navel to the back. Recommended exercises include side plank, bridge, and superman. You can also practice Nordic walking with poles and enjoy the great outdoors.



Man balancing on hands on yoga mat
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Static yoga poses and plenty of sun salutations (which includes the plank pose and push-up repetitions) can help build core strength and balance. You can further enhance these benefits by practicing relaxed, deep, and rhythmic breathing. As you progress in your practice, advanced balancing poses like the crow (pictured) or side crow can build abs and core muscles like no other.



David Beckham
FC Dallas v Los Angeles Galaxy/Getty Images

David Beckham's six-pack gives you a pretty good idea of how good soccer can be in building abs. It employs sprinting which requires the explosive pumping of the arms and legs in a rhythmic fashion. Kicking or heading a soccer ball demands the contraction of the upper and lower body as well as rotation to propel the ball more forcefully.

The speed in which soccer is played, as well as the need to change directions quickly, requires that you have strong multifidus and stabilizer muscles. It also requires endurance in order to stay in the game.

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.