Deadlifts hit a plateau? Shoulders hunching forward as you run? Or maybe you’ve just found yourself slumped over your desk one too many times. Whatever your reasons for wanting to improve your core strength, our guide to the best core exercises will help you build strength, stability and six-pack muscles.
Not that this is all about muscle.
From the minute you rise out of bed to the minute you sleep at night there isn’t a moment where you’re not using your core. That’s why we’ve enlisted the help of Marvin Burton, head of fitness at Anytime Fitness UK, to get your core ready for action, whether you need it to get you through 80 minutes of rugby or carry your shopping home from the supermarket.
“You core isn’t something that you can switch on or off,” says Burton. “It’s always going to be on. If I say to you: try getting out of bed without using your core, it can’t happen. Every time you sneeze, cough or laugh your core is contracting, so it’s important you build sufficient core strength for whatever task you’re doing.”
What Muscles Make up the Core
Think of the relationship between your abs and your core as you do the relationship between your biceps or triceps and your arms: one is a muscle whereas the other is an area comprised of multiple muscles.
“By exercising your core you’re trying to focus on what’s happening around the centre of your body,” says Burton. “Whereas if someone says specifically I want to do an ab exercise, I know they’re talking about the muscles at the front of the stomach.”
Your core muscles extend from your neck down to your pelvis and incorporate muscles such as your:
- Traverse abdominis: wraps around the front and side of your trunk. This muscle stabilises the pelvis.
- Internal and external obliques: extend diagonally from ribs to the pelvis and allow you to rotate your trunk.
- Rectus abdominis: more commonly referred to as your ‘six-pack’ muscle. When you bend forward you’re using this.
- Multifidus: back muscle that supports your spine.
- Erector spinae: back muscle that extends your trunk and helps you stand up straight.
Why You Should Train Your Core
From injury prevention to enhanced sports performance, there are many reasons to train your core. With the help of Burton and the latest science, let’s take a look at some of them in greater detail.
A Strong Core Will Improve Your Posture
A study in Isokinetics and Exercise Science found that core training can help you to stand a little taller. The study reported that men who took part in three hour-long pilates sessions a week for two months saw significant improvements in postural stability tests.
A Strong Core Will Help You Build Muscle in Other Areas
More interested in building big pecs than developing a strong core? Well, you’re unlikely to be able to do one without the other. “If you’re a guy who wants a bigger chest but you’ve got a weak core, that’s going to contribute to a forward pulling and a rounding of the shoulders,” says Burton. Core exercises will fix that rounding and give you the chest you’ve always dreamed of.
If you’re looking to build strength then you can’t go wrong by focusing on big compound lifts, like the deadlift, squat and bench. If you want perform these moves with proper form then a strong midsection will help you lift heavier weights for more reps by generating more force through your body and keeping your back safe.
A Strong Core Will Help You When Playing Other Sports
Research by scientists at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center found that most people’s deep core muscles aren’t nearly as strong as they should be, while runners with weak deep core muscles are at an increased risk of developing low-back pain. The low-back pain runners suffer from is a consequence of poor form caused by a weak core, which also has obvious downsides.
“Once you start to slouch when you run you close down the amount of oxygen going into your lungs,” says Burton. “If you saw someone running along a road and their head’s hanging and their shoulders are hunched forward, your coaching points would be lift your head up and pull your shoulders back – what you’re trying to do is get more air in the lungs because your muscles don’t work without oxygen, but that whole system of getting oxygen to muscles and holding yourself upright relies on your core.”
Having a strong core won’t just make you a better runner, most sports rely on a sturdy foundation, so if you want to improve your functional performance you need to include core exercises.
How to Engage Your Core
Knowing the exercises that will work your core is one thing, but if you learn how to engage it properly, you’ll know how to work your core whatever muscle you’re training. In essence, engaging your core means to brace your body as if you are expecting to receive a haymaker to your midriff, and while that may sound simple, turning that into an unconscious action isn’t easy. Handily, Burton has come up with a simple way to learn how to engage your core.
“To begin with,” says Burton, “lay on your back with your knees bent and feet flat. Press your back into the ground and try to slide your hand under your lower back. Try to prevent your hand from passing through the gap by pressing down slightly and tensing your core muscles. Hold this position for six to 10 seconds and rest, then repeat three to four times.
“To progress, try standing and contracting. Once you know what you should be feeling, it makes it easier to comprehend what contracting and engaging the core means. The key things to remember are that your glute muscles, stomach and breathing should all contribute. The contraction shouldn’t be so hard that it becomes impossible to contract and breathe at the same time.
“Practiced over time, it will soon become a subconscious action and help to maintain the correct position, and posture and provide you with greater support, balance, control and strength.”
The Best Core Workouts To Improve Strength
Want to work your core right away? Take a look at these three workouts that are all about giving you a good base to work from.
The Best 20 Best Core Exercises
Why: Everyone has to start somewhere, and when it comes to core exercises we start with the plank. This is great beginner move that will get your core firing by forcing you to support your body weight on your forearms and toes.
How: Get in a press-up position but rest on your forearms rather than your hands. Make sure your back is straight and tense your abs and your glutes. Hold without allowing your hips to sag.
Burton says: If you want to advance this move, don’t think about doing it for longer. Instead, consider adding weight to the move by doing plank pull-throughs, wherein a high plank drag a weight from side to side. “People think that because they can do a core exercise for a long period of time they’ve got a strong core, but what’s the benefit of holding a plank for two minutes? I don’t see the point because you’re just getting good at doing something for longer. Whereas, when you start adding weight and resistance you find they can only do it for a short period of time. [It’s beneficial] because you’re gonna have to recruit more muscle fibres to then control that movement.”
2) Glute Bridge
Why: A strong core needs a strong set of glutes, but they are a muscle group which is often overlooked. Strengthening them will do wonders for your physique now and in years to come.
How: Lie flat on the floor with your legs bent. Drive through your heels to push your hips upwards as far as you can go, before pausing and returning to the start position.
Burton says: While everyone is pretty well aware that the plank is a good beginner exercise for your core, the glute bridge tends to get less love, but Burton believes it’s equally critical. “So you got to have strong glutes because your glutes support your back. If your glutes don’t what a physio would call ‘fire’, they don’t contract, so you’re not going to be able to support yourself effectively. Your first two questions should be: can I do a glute bridge and can I do a plank, once you’ve got those two, then you can start moving on to ‘how can I apply movement to it?’
3) Dead Bug
Why: Dead bugs are a great beginner core exercise because, let’s face it, they’re hard to get wrong and are a safe way to test how strong your core is.
How: Lie on your back with hands above you and feet up so your knees are at 90 degrees. Straighten your leg until your heel is an inch from the floor, and lower the opposite arm so it’s parallel to the floor. Return to the start position, and repeat with the other leg and arm.
4) Flutter Kicks
Why: Another deceptively easy move that will make a big difference to your core strength is flutter kicks. By extending your legs and hovering your heels you’ll be working your core stabilisers, but in a position that’s safe for your lower back.
How: Lie facedown on a bench with your hips on the edge. Extend your legs off the back of the bench, squeeze your glutes and raise your legs until they are level with your hips. Lift your left leg higher than your right leg, then lower your left leg as you lift your right leg. Make sure that you keep a controlled movement at all times.
5) Swimming Superman
Why: Of course, actual, real-life, in-water swimming is great for your core, but a static extension of your hips and upper back is also going to strengthen your glutes and core. We added the ‘swimming’ movement at the end just to make the whole thing a bit harder.
How: Lie on your belly and hover your feet and arms slightly off the ground as you tense your abs and glutes. From here, bring your hands toward your face and bend your elbows. Now, start swimming. Straighten your arms so your hands sweep out on either side, before bringing them back to your face again and back up. Ensure they are hovering for the entire movement.
6) TRX Row
Why: The suspension trainer may not get much love in the gym, but for your core it’s critical. Try using one of these without engaging your core. Go on, we dare you.
How: Set up your suspension trainer so the handles hang at chest height, and grab onto them with your feet hip-width apart. Lean back until your arms are extended, and pull your chest up, keeping your elbows close to your body while squeezing your shoulder blades together behind you. Your chest and hands should meet. Pause at the top of the move, then slowly lower until your arms are extended again.
Burton says: “I like suspension training because you can’t be in a suspended position without contracting your core.”
7) Dragon Flag
Why: You’re working so much more than your abs with this movement. Your upper-body, hip flexors, glutes and lower-back are all going to have to support you, which makes it a perfect move for building core strength.
How: Lie back and hold the bench behind your head. Bend your knees and kick your legs up towards the ceiling, bringing your backside and back off the bench. Slowly move your body back down to starting position, then repeat.
Burton says: “You’re just going against gravity and lowering under control, so you’re eccentrically lengthening under gravity. Once you do anything with your legs and they start lowering, you start to get that anterior tilt, and that’s when people’s lower back, if they’re not fundamentally strong tend to tweak. A little coaching point I’d give for this would be to slightly bend the knees to reduce the amount of pressure on the hip flexors. Because that’s going to then reduce the amount of pull on your pelvis. “
8) Russian Twists
Why: It doesn’t matter whether boxing, rowing, running or kayaking are your sport of choice, they all require mastery of rotational movements. Adding a move like Russian twists, then, will boost your core strength and help you to mimic the movements you find in other sports.
How: Sit holding a weight plate, dumbbell, kettlebell or sandbag with your arms extended and feet off the floor. Quickly twist at the torso, turning from side to side.
9) Barbell Rollout
Why: Rollouts challenge and engage the full core, but be warned the further you go the harder the move gets.
How: Load a barbell with 5kg plates and grab the bar with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Position your shoulders directly over the barbell and slowly roll the bar forwards. Pause, then reverse the move. Roll out to a distance that’s challenging, but doesn’t force your hips to sag.
10) Medicine Ball Slam
Why: This exercise will challenge your entire upper body, but more importantly for us, done with correct form it’s going to give your core an intense workout.
How: Stand with your knees slightly bent holding a medicine ball above your head with your arms extended. Bend forward at the waist, and use your core muscles to slam the ball against the floor about a foot in front of you. Let your arms follow through so you don’t fall forward. Catch the ball on its way back up and repeat.
Burton says: “Most people do this for its cardiovascular benefit, but I think it’s a great exercise for the core. Once people start lifting and slamming hard and fast, what tends to happen is they go quicker and they shorten their range of movement, so they almost get into this crouched position as they’re throwing it downwards, whereas to get more of a core load, you have to go into extended position, so you’ve got to go high with the ball.
“When I work with people I prefer to have them do a reverse lunge into a slam, because it forces them to step back, which is going to tilt the pelvis forward and take the arms overhead, so now you’re going to get a massive load to your stomach because you’re stretching those muscles first, then you go into the explosive contraction.”
11) Cable Woodchop
Why: While we want to mimic rotational movements that are an important part of most sports and most people’s everyday life, we don’t always want to perform them sitting on the ground. The cable woodchop is a great way to incorporate rotational movements, which will strengthen the core, but working in a standing position will mean you’re working more muscles.
How: Set the cable to the highest pulley position. With your side to the cable, grab the handle with one hand and step away from the tower. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and reach up with your free hand to grab the same handle. With arms fully extended, pull the handle down and across your body to your front knee while rotating your torso. Pivot your back foot and bend your knees. Return to the start position slowly under control.
Burton says: “Try to perform exercises while standing where possible, because obviously the amount of time you spend on the floor is quite low and once you get onto the floor you’re reducing the amount of joints that are contributing to that movement, whereas in everyday life, when you’re walking, everything’s got to work.”
12) Hanging Leg Raises
Why: If you’re looking to build abs and and improve your core strength and stability there are few moves that can compare with hanging leg raises.
How: Grab a pull-up bar and lower yourself into a dead hang. Let your legs straighten and pull your pelvis back slightly. Tense your core and raise your legs until your thighs are perpendicular to your torso. Hold then lower slowly back to the starting position.
Burton says: “The further away your legs are, you’re creating a longer lever but that longer lever is pulling on the pelvis. If you’ve got the strength within to do that then great, but with most people I ask them to do it with a slightly bent knee and their toes internally rotated, just slightly, because that internal rotation is going to lengthen your glutes, so you’re going to get more glute support. That will support your pelvis and reduce the load on your hip flexors, which is fundamentally why people struggle with hanging leg raises because their hip flexors are tight and it’s pulling the pelvis.”
13) Turkish Get-up
Why: Stability, mobility, balance and strength, the Turkish get-up will improve them all.
How: Lie down and hold a kettlebell just above your right shoulder. Extend your right arm and push the kettlebell directly above you, then straighten your left arm out to your side. Bend your right knee and move it across your body, placing your foot on the floor. Keep watching the kettlebell, still at arms length above you, as you move into standing position. Slowly reverse the movement until you’re lying down, then bring the kettlebell back down to your shoulder.
Burton says: Be careful with this one. Although the Turkish get-up appears simple there’s so much going on that Burton classes it as an advanced move. “I mean it’s incredibly difficult to stabilise the weight above your head, but then moving from the ground to standing is a whole other ballgame because you’ve got to concentrate on other aspects of your core – not just strength but also balance, coordination, your perception of where your joints are – so now you’re talking about proprioception and being aware of what you’re doing. Once all that builds up, you’re putting somebody into an unbelievably stressed position for their muscles and their nervous system to deal with, and that’s why it’s advanced because there’s so much going on.”
Why: L-sits aren’t for novices, but if you’re capable the move is a demonstration of midline stability and strength.
How: With your hands on the floor, fingers facing forwards and arms fully extended, lift your legs up until they are parallel to the floor. And hold.
15) Bear Crawl
Why: Crawling like a bear may make you feel a little silly in the gym, but it’ll build full-body strength, balance and coordination. Worth a few strange looks, we’re sure you’ll agree.
How: Put your palms on the floor, resting on your toes, your knees hovering above the ground and your back flat. From here, crawl forward on your hands and toes, with your feet and knees kicking out a little wider than your hands to generate speed. Then push backwards on hands and toes to return to the start.
16) Hollow Rock
Why: The hollow rock is an advanced exercise that works the entire core. By holding the rigid position throughout the torso, your abdominals, obliques, and spinal erector muscles will be fighting to resist any movement.
How: Lie on the floor and push your back into the floor to engage your core. Bring the legs and shoulders off the floor with your arms above your head. Choose a leg height that allows you to maintain the back position and core engagement. If your back begins to arch, lift the legs slightly. Lock the position and use momentum to rock the body forward and back. The exercise can be regressed by bending the knees and holding the arms out in front.
17) Plank Pull Through
Why: The plank pull through works the entirety of the core by challenging it to remain locked when moving the weight from side to side. It’s a great way of progressing the plank if you’re looking to take it up a gear.
How: Begin in the high plank position with a dumbbell to the side of one palm. Reach underneath the torso with the opposite hand to the dumbbell and drag it underneath the body. Maintain the hip position and keep the body in line for the entirety of your set.
18) Renegade Row
Why: The renegade row is a great addition to your core exercises and a heavy hitter when it comes to core training, with it strengthening your back, abdominals, obliques and erector spinae all in one move.
How: Start in a strong plank with both hands on your dumbbells. Shifting your weight onto your left hand, row the right dumbbell towards your hip. Pause briefly, then lower the weight under control. Repeat on your left side (left+right equals one rep).
19) Copenhagen Plank
Why: According to MH Elite Coach Gus Vaz Tostes, ‘The Copenhagen plank is a complete exercise. Complete in the sense that it mainly focusses on the adductors and the inside of your hips, which are very important stabilisers for squats or anything legs related.’
How: Begin on the floor. Supporting your bodyweight, lift your top leg onto the bench. Bring the other leg underneath the bench to meet the underside of it. Lift your hips into a high side plank position with the feet elevated. Squeeze your inner thigh (adductor muscles) so that the legs stay closed. Keep your body in a completely straight line.
20) Kneeling Landmine Rotations
Why: If you want to focus on strengthening your oblique muscles and bulletproofing your spine, add landmine rotations in your program. The landmine is a versatile piece of kit and will add some much needed variety to your library of core exercises.
How: Begin kneeling while holding the barbell overhead with both hands. Keep the hips facing forward and twist the upper body to one side as you travel the barbell in an arc shape to meet your hip. Retrace the bar path back to overhead, ready to repeat on the the other side.
Do Core Exercises Reduce Belly Fat?
While core exercises build muscle around the midsection, something that is highly important for a defined core, it is unlikely that they will reduce belly fat in solitude without any other lifestyle changes. The main key component which contributes to a reduction in overall body fat is an energy deficit created by nutritional choices, supported by regular exercise.
According to an article published by Examine, ‘Exercise is an advantageous adjunct to diet for achieving and maintaining weight loss, although exercise alone is an inefficient way to induce significant weight loss.’
Reducing fat mass can be achieved with diet interventions with the help of a consistent exercise routine which could consist of core exercises. However, it can’t be guaranteed that the fat loss will be lost from the stomach area (spot reduction) should that be your goal.
In a study published by Human Movement, it concluded that ‘Localised muscle training had no effect on localised adipose tissue depots, i.e., there was no spot reduction, regardless of the characteristics of the population and of the exercise program. The popular belief concerning spot reduction is probably derived from wishful thinking and convenient marketing strategies, such as influencers seeking increased popularity and procedure sellers interested in increasing advertising.’
So, if your goal is to reduce belly fat, focus on your nutritional intake, portion control and increasing your daily exercise in a way that you enjoy.
Top 10 Core Workouts
Now that you have learnt how to do your core exercises correctly, try MH’s top core workouts:
- Torch Your Core and Bulletproof Your Body with Just One Dumbbell
- Mat Fraser Shares a Core Finisher to Build Strong, Solid Abs
- These 9 Moves Are All You Need for a Killer Ab Workout at Home
- Hit This No-Plank Workout for a Stronger Core
- A 4-Move Core Workout That Uses A Rowing Machine (Without Any Rowing)
- We Broke down Jermaine Jenas’ ‘Get Ready for Summer’ Bodyweight Core Workout
- Build Abs of Steel with Our Ultimate Bodyweight Core Carver
- A 12-Min Abs Session Fit for Core Beginners and 6-pack Pros
- This Dumbbell Core Crusher Workout Builds a Big Chest, Back and Arms
- This ‘Zercher’ Finisher Builds a Solid Back and Core
Kate is a fitness writer for Men’s Health UK where she contributes regular workouts, training tips and nutrition guides. She has a post graduate diploma in Sports Performance Nutrition and before joining Men’s Health she was a nutritionist, fitness writer and personal trainer with over 5k hours coaching on the gym floor. Kate has a keen interest in volunteering for animal shelters and when she isn’t lifting weights in her garden, she can be found walking her rescue dog.