Having a strong core was once a priority reserved only for athletes and fitness fanatics. But we all understand the importance of core strength for overall health and well-being. As I learned more about core training, I was intrigued yet perplexed by the vast range of exercises touted to “strengthen your core”. With so many options, how do you know where to start? Which moves work…and which are a waste of time?
In this post, I’ll use my experience as a trainer to cut through the confusion. You’ll discover the 10 best core exercises to incorporate into your workouts, along with variations for all fitness levels. I include details on proper form, muscle activation, and modifications to make each move more accessible or challenging.
Let’s start by reviewing the core and why strong core muscles are valuable for all of us—not just gym die-hards.
What is the Core, and Why is it Important?
Your” “core” refers to the muscles of your midsection, front and back. This includes the following:
- Rectus abdominis: The long, flat muscle spanning the front of your abdomen—the “six-pack” muscle.
- External obliques: Muscles running down your sides, allowing you to twist your torso.
- Internal obliques: Located underneath the external obliques, it assists with rotation and stability.
- Transverse abdominis: A profound layer of abdominals wrapping around your trunk to stabilize your core during movement.
- Erector spinae: Muscles supporting your lower back are essential for good posture.
- Glutes: Your buttocks muscles also play a crucial role in core activation and pelvic stability.
Why does core strength matter?
Here are four key benefits:
- Prevents back pain: Strong core muscles take stress off your spine, keeping your back healthy.
- Supports good posture: Activated core muscles encourage you to stand and sit tall.
- Boosts movement efficiency: A solid core allows you to leverage power from your center and move with control.
- Transferable strength: Core engagement enhances your performance in cardio, strength training, sports…you name it!
Now that you know why developing core strength is worthwhile for all of us, let’s explore the most effective exercises to target all areas of your midsection.
My Top 10 Core Strengthening Exercises
The following 10 moves challenge your core from all angles, working the front, sides, and back for complete activation. I incorporate advanced variations to progress each exercise and suggest beginner modifications.
Yes, old-school crunches make the list! When done correctly, basic crunches are highly effective for targeting those rectus abdominis muscles.
- Lie faceup with hips and knees bent 90 degrees, feet flat.
- Contract abdominals to curl the torso up, keeping the chin away from the chest. Exhale lifting; inhale lowering.
- Reverse crunches: Lie flat, holding legs in the air, curling hips towards the chest. Hits lower abs.
- Oblique crunches: Raise the opposite elbow towards the opposite knee when curling up. Works oblique.
The keys to crunches? Don’t yank your head forward—keep your chin away from your chest. Move slowly and control. Only lift shoulder blades; avoid straining the neck.
Pros: Easy to modify, direct rectus abdominis activation
Cons: Can strain neck if poor form
2. Leg Raises
Leg raises blast your lower abs through a wide range of motion. Start by:
- Lying flat with legs extended, reach arms overhead to stabilize your upper body.
- Keeping legs straight, exhale as you lift them towards the ceiling before controlling the return to the start position.
- Flutter kicks: Rapidly scissor legs up and down an inch off the floor for an intense burn.
- Toe touches: Raise your leg to 90 degrees, then reach your hands overhead to tap your toes before lowering with control.
Leg raises work best with excellent form. Throw your legs up using momentum or strain your neck, lifting the head. Bend your knees to decrease resistance until you build strength.
Pros: Targets lower abs through full range of motion
Cons: Easy to use momentum vs. controlled movement
3. Plank Ups
Plank-up exercises build core strength by incorporating planks into a dynamic, full-body move. Two great options:
- Plank jacks: Start in a high plank. Hop feet wide, together as you would with jumping jacks—all while retaining a solid core.
- Plank knee tucks: From a forearm plank, draw one knee to the same-side elbow before returning to start and alternating sides.
These plank variations challenge your core stabilizers as you coordinate steady limbs with a moving center of gravity—gain control before picking up the pace.
Pros: Dynamic challenge for core endurance
Cons: High intensity, requires baseline plank strength
4. Russian Twists
Russian twists build oblique strength for powerful rotary movement.
- Sit on the floor with knees bent, leaning back 45 degrees with engaged abs.
- Clasp your hands and rotate your shoulders side-to-side, keeping movement crisp and controlled.
- Make it more challenging by extending your legs or holding a weight at chest height when you twist.
Many people round their spines doing Russian twists. This strains your lower back—so press your upper back tall while rooting through your sit bones. Decrease range of motion if needed to keep proper form.
Pros: Targets obliques, beginner-friendly
Cons: Risk of rounding lower back if poor form
5. Bicycle Crunches
Bicycle moves build coordination while blasting obliques and lower and upper abs. Here’s how:
- Lie face, knees bent 90 degrees, feet lifted.
- Touch opposite elbow to knee, alternating sides in a “pedalin” movement.
- Draw your belly inward as you complete each pedal stroke”.
Bicycle crunches improve muscle recruitment by requiring stabilization of the legs along with the twisting motion. Perplexed on form? Go slowly until you find control.
Pros: Comprehensive core workout, engages many muscles
Cons: Coordination-heavy, expect a learning curve
6. Side Bends
You likely hold tension in one side of your core more than the other—side bends can help correct strength imbalances.
- Stand tall, feet hip-width. Reach one arm overhead next to your ear.
- Press through your heels and lengthen your torso toward your arm, contracting obliques. Alternate sides.
Pros: Targets obliques, easy to modify for all levels
Cons: Weights may strain lower back; begin bodyweight only
7. Dead Bugs
One of my all-time favorite core moves, dead bugs teach proper activation while working your entire midsection.
- Lie flat with bent knees over hips and arms reaching to the ceiling.
- Maintaining a neutral spine, straightening one leg while simultaneously lowering the opposite arm overhead.
- Return to the start and alternate sides, moving slowly with control.
- Add light dumbbells in your hands for extra resistance.
- Balance an exercise ball between your knees and press overhead with your hands.
While a seemingly simple exercise, dead bugs are deceptively tricky! Go slowly, lower limbs only as far as you can while keeping your back pressed flat before progressing a range of motion.
Pros: Works all core muscles in one move, challenges stability
Cons: Tough to maintain proper form for beginners
8. Back Extensions
Back extensions open your front-to-back core line while working those lower back erector muscles.
- Lie prone with arms extended overhead, palms down.
- Inhale, lifting head, chest, arms, and legs off the floor. Exhale lowering with control.
Superman back extensions: Lift both arms and legs simultaneously for an intense ”superman” challenge! Don’t let your hips sag when doing back extensions. Keep your legs engaged, reaching your heels towards the wall behind you. Reduce range of motion to stay safe for the lower back.
9. Bird Dogs
Bird dogs are a popular rehab exercise that develops core stabilization and balance.
- Begin on all fours with a flat back.
- At the same time, extend one arm forward while reaching the opposite leg back, stretching long through your limbs. Avoid twisting your hips.
- Hold for 1-2 seconds before gently lowering back to all fours and switching sides.
- For added difficulty, perform bird dogs from a plank position with only your forearms and toes touching the floor. This ramps up the stability challenge.
When doing bird dogs, move slowly and keep your gaze down. Don’t let your hips shift side-to-side or dip towards the floor. Doing so usually indicates weak glute medius muscles—so strengthen these with targeted exercises like fire hydrants.
Pros: Works back and front core, challenges balance
Cons: Easy to compensate by twisting hips/arching back
The standard plank tops nearly every list of core exercises for a good reason: it teaches core control while challenging muscle endurance.
- Rest forearms on the floor with elbows stacked below shoulders; legs are straight behind you.
- Draw the belly button to the spine, tightening your midsection while squeezing your glutes.
- Hold position, keeping your back flat.
- Side plank: Rotate to either side, stacking feet and resting on one forearm. Keeps abs tight while working obliques.
- Reverse plank: Sit with legs extended, lifting hips to create a straight line from knees to shoulders. It hits your abs while opening the front of your hips.
Planks build incredible core stability…if done correctly. Don’t let your hips sag or back arch—this strains your lower back. Modify by holding the plank with your knees down until you build sufficient strength.
Pros: Simple, effective for core endurance, easy to modify
Cons: Can be harsh on wrists in high plank position
Beginner vs. Advanced Core Exercises
Sticking to fundamental movements that teach proper muscle engagement when starting core training. Planks, dead bugs, crunches, and bird dogs make excellent beginner choices. Practice nailing form with more accessible versions before tackling trickier exercises for the obliques, like Russian twists or side bends.
As you build strength, incorporate more dynamic planks, leg raises, and bicycles to continually challenge stability. Resistance tools like medicine balls, bands, and cable machines are great for progressed athletes.
Remember, it’s easy for beginners to unconsciously strain their lower backs, attempting overly complex exercises before establishing baseline core strength. Build a proper foundation first, then bring on the perplexing moves!
How to Properly Engage Your Core
Getting the most from core training isn’t just about doing trendy moves. Before lifting a finger, you must understand how to activate key muscles effectively. Let’s review two essential skills for strong core engagement: breathing/bracing and spinal alignment.
Breathing and Bracing
Bracing refers to consciously tightening or drawing” your core muscles. Proper bracing increases intra-abdominal pressure for spine stability, yet few can achieve it effectively.
Here is a bracing technique used by powerlifters that works wonders:
- Inhale deeply, feeling your stomach expand outward.
- Firmly pull your navel inward.
- Exhale through pursed lips as if you were fogging a mirror, keeping that tightness.
Practice abdominal bracing during any core exercise, engaging deep muscles continuously throughout all reps. Learning this simple—yet perplexing—skill is the game changer for functional core strength.
Good Spinal Alignment
Maintaining a neutral spine is also key for core integrity. We tend to arch our lower backs during sit-ups or crunches. This overstretched the spinal erectors, causing strain.
Instead, keep the natural curve of your spine with a tucked pelvis. Draw lower abs inward to prevent excessive arching, especially in backbends.
With these physical and mental cues down, you’ll recruit more fibers with every core-focused movement. Strengthening your mind-body connection builds neural pathways critical for gains.
Sample Weekly Core Workout Schedule
Ready to implement these perplexing moves into your workouts? Good core training strikes a balance—hits every muscle group with mobility, strength, and endurance challenges.
Try this well-rounded core program:
Monday: Core Strength
- Plank variations – 4 sets, max hold time
- Dead bugs – 3 sets x 10-12 reps per side
- Bird dogs – 3 sets x 5 reps per side
Wednesday: Core Mobility
- Cat/cow sequence – 5 rounds
- Windshield wipers – 2 sets x 6-8 reps per side
- Bridge sequence with leg extensions – 2 sets x 10-12 reps
Friday: Core Power
- Russian twists with medicine ball – 4 sets x 6-10 reps per side
- Flutter kicks – 4 sets x 20-30 reps
- Toe touch leg raises – 3 sets x 10-15 reps
- Back extensions on stability ball – 3 sets x failure
Aim for full engagement on all movements—even shorter sets—rather than slogging through high volumes with poor form. Quality over quantity offers better rewards!
Pepper this core session into your current split, perhaps before leg days when your core will need more activation. Or, complete it as a burst workout a few times per week to compound gains.
Hopefully, this guide clarified the perplexing world of core strength training! Now, you can feel confident incorporating moves that safely challenge the front, sides, and back.
Remember—rushed or sloppy form prevents accurate core activation. Master control with more accessible progressions before attempting trickier exercises. And take time building mind-muscle connections through proper bracing techniques.
Apply these tips for measured, motivated gains. Soon, you’ll unleash that six-pack and whole-body power to take your fitness goals to the next level!