The best core strengthening exercises may surprise you. It’s not enough to just do ab crunches and sit ups. To build a strong core you need to exercise a variety of muscles from your hips to your shoulders.
Most people think of the core as a nice six-pack, or strong, toned abs, but the truth is that the abdominal muscles are a very small part of the core. The abs have very limited and specific action, and what experts refer to as the “core” actually consists of many different muscles that stabilise the spine and pelvis, and run the entire length of the torso. When these muscles contract, they stabilise the spine, pelvis and shoulder girdle and create a solid base of support. When this happens, we are able to generate powerful movements of the extremities.
The core muscles also make it possible to stand upright and move on two feet. These muscles help control movements, transfer energy, shift body weight and move in any direction. A strong core distributes the stresses of weight-bearing and protects the back. Core conditioning exercise programs need to target all these muscle groups to be effective.
Defining the Core/ Inner Unit : image courtsey of Burrell Education
What Are the Core Muscles?
Different experts include different muscles in this list, but in general, the muscles of the core run the length of the trunk and torso.
The following list includes the most commonly identified core muscles as well as the lesser known groups.
• Rectus Abdominis – located along the front of the abdomen, this is the most well-known abdominal muscle and is often referred to as the “six-pack” due to it’s appearance in fit and thin individuals.
• Erector Spinae– This group of three muscles runs along your neck to your lower back.
• Multifidus – located under the erector spinae along the vertebral column, these muscles extend and rotate the spine.
• External Obliques – located on the side and front of the abdomen.
• Internal Obliques – located under the external obliques, running in the opposite direction.
• Transverse Abdominis (TVA) – located under the obliques, it is the deepest of the abdominal muscles (muscles of your waist) and wraps around your spine for protection and stability.
• Hip Flexors – located in front of the pelvis and upper thigh. The muscles that make up the hip flexors include: psoas major, illiacus, rectus femoris, pectineus, sartorius
• Gluteus medius and minimus – located at the side of the hip
• Gluteus maximus, hamstring group, piriformis – located in the back of the hip and upper thigh leg.
• Hip adductors – located at medial thigh.
Benefits of Good Core Strength
A Strong Core Reduces Back Pain
Abdominals get all the credit for protecting the back and being the foundation of strength, but they are only a small part of what makes up the core. In fact, it is weak and unbalanced core muscles that are linked to low back pain. Weak core muscles result in a loss of the appropriate lumbar curve and a swayback posture. Stronger, balanced core muscles help maintain appropriate posture and reduce strain on the spine.
A Strong Core Improves Athletic Performance
Because the muscles of the trunk and torso stabilise the spine from the pelvis to the neck and shoulder, they allow the transfer of power to the arms and legs. All powerful movements originate from the centre of the body out, and never from the limbs alone. Before any powerful, rapid muscle contractions can occur in the extremities, the spine must be solid and stable and the more stable the core, the most powerful the extremities can contract.
A Strong Core Improves Postural Imbalances
Training the muscles of the core helps correct postural imbalances that can lead to injuries. The biggest benefit of core training is to develop functional fitness; the type of fitness that is essential to daily living and regular activities.
Exercises that Build Core Strength
Core strengthening exercises are most effective when the torso works as a solid unit and both front and back muscles contract at the same time, multi-joint movements are performed and stabilisation of the spine is monitored. Abdominal bracing is a basic technique used during core exercise training. To correctly brace, you should attempt to pull your navel back in toward your spine. This action primarily recruits the transverse abdominus. You should be able to breathe evenly while bracing and no hold your breath.
There are many exercises that will strengthen the core. A large number of core strengthening exercises can be done at home with no equipment while some require the use of equipment and gadgets.
What Are the Best Core Strengthening Exercises?
Core exercises are most effective when they engage many muscles throughout the torso that cross several joints and work together to coordinate stability. Core muscles need to work as a unit, contract at the same time, across joints in order to stabilise the spine.
Some of the best core exercises are simple bodyweight exercises, including the following.
The Plank Abdominal Exercise
The basic plank exercise, also called a hover, is the starting place if you want to improve your core strength and stability. Here’s how to do it right.
- Begin in the plank position (see photo 1) with your forearms and toes on the floor.
- Keep your torso straight and rigid and your body in a straight line from ears to toes with no sagging or bending.
- Your head is relaxed and you should be looking at the floor.
- Hold this position for 10 seconds to start.
- Over time work up to 30, 45 or 60 seconds.
Plank with Leg Lift
- Start in the same plank position as above with your forearms and toes on the floor
- Slowly raise one leg 5-8 inches off the floor
- Count to two and slowly lower your leg to the floor.
- Switch legs and repeat.
- Do about 2-3 sets of 10 reps.
Plank with Arm Lift
- Start in the same plank position (photo 1) as above.
- Carefully shift your weight to your right forearm.
- Extend your left arm straight out in front of you.
- Hold 3 seconds while keeping your core tight.
- Slowly bring your arm back to starting position.
- Switch arms and repeat.
- Do 2-3 sets of 10 reps.
Modified Plank with Leg Lift
To make this exercise a bit easier, you can perform the movement on your hands, rather than your elbows.
Plank on Swiss Ball
Once you’ve mastered the basic plank, you can increase the difficulty by performing a plank on a balance ball. Because the balance ball is unstable, you will engage more muscles across the entire core from shoulders to toes. To maintain a solid posture, you will need to make many small adjustments that require greater muscle activation.
- Start by getting into a plank position with your forearms on the balance ball and your toes on the floor
- Keep your abs contracted and your back straight– you should form a straight line from your head to your toes.
- Hold this position for as long as you can, without sagging or arching at your hips.
- To increase the difficulty, keep feet close together or lift one foot off the floor.
- To decrease the difficulty, spread your feet wide apart for a larger base of support.
The Side Plank Exercise
- Begin by laying on your side on the floor.
- Position your elbow on the floor just under your shoulder.
- Lift up on that elbow and keep your body stiff from head to toe.
- Hold this position for a count of 10 and lower your hip to the floor.
- Rest and repeat three times.
- Switch sides and repeat the exercise on the other hip.
- You can increase the effectiveness of this exercise by lifting the top leg up toward the ceiling. Repeat the leg lift 10 times slowly and return to the start position.
If you prefer, you can do these exercises on a hand rather than an elbow.
The push up may just be the perfect total body exercise that builds both upper body and core strength. Done properly, it is a compound exercise that uses muscles in the chest, shoulders, triceps, back, abs and even the legs.
How to Do a Perfect Push Up
- Get on the floor and position your hands slightly wider than your shoulders.
- Raise up onto your toes so you are balanced on your hands and toes.
- Keep your body in a straight line from head to toe without sagging in the middle or arching your back.
- Your feet can be close together or a bit wider depending upon what is most comfortable for you.
- Before you begin any movement, contract your abs and tighten your core by pulling your belly button toward your spine.
- Keep a tight core throughout the entire push up.
- Inhale as you slowly bend your elbows and lower yourself until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle.
- Exhale as you begin pushing back up to the start position
- Don’t lock out the elbows; keep them slightly bent.
- Repeat for as many repetitions as your workout routine requires.
Push Up Variations
• Push Up Lat Row
The push up is nearly perfect all by itself, but add a couple of dumbbells to the movement and you have a complete upper body workout. This variation adds alternating dumbbell lat rows to the top of each rep. This modification increases the intensity of the exercise, activates the core stabilisers and engages the latissimus dorsi (back) muscles.
• Stability Ball Push Ups
If you are ready to move beyond the basic push and add some core stability work try stability ball push-ups. This variation of the push up increases the difficulty and effectiveness of the standard push up. Adding the balance requirement takes some practice and good core strength, so make sure you can do about 20 basic push-ups before trying these.
• Incline (Table Top) Push Ups
If a standard push up is too difficult, you can start by doing push-ups against a wall, a table or a sturdy chair. Stand several feet away from the object you are using and use the same push up technique as above to lower yourself until the elbows are 90 degrees and then raise back up. Keep your core tight the whole time.
• Bent Knee Push Ups
This is a modified version of the standard push up performed on the knees rather than on the toes. Be sure to keep the knees, hips and shoulders all in a straight line; most people have a tendency to bend at the hips as though you are bowing, but this is incorrect technique.
• Decline Push Ups
This is a more difficult push-up, performed with the feet raised up on a box or bench. You can adjust the box height to increase or decrease the resistance using just your body weight.
• Clapping Push Up
This is a plyometric exercise in which you push yourself up with enough power so that your hands come off the floor and you clap in midair. This exercise is not for novice exercisers. You can get injured very easily if you haven’t worked up to these one at a time.
• Medicine Ball Push Up
Perform a standard push up with one hand on top of a medicine ball. This works the shoulder in a slightly different range of motion which increases shoulder stability.
• Diamond Push Up
The diamond push up is done with your hands close together; with the index fingers and thumbs of one hand touching touching the other hand and making a diamond shape. You then do push ups with your hands touching the centre of your chest and elbows close to your sides during each rep.
The v-sit is an effective abdominal and core exercise that works the rectus abdominis, the external obliques and internal obliques. This exercise also engages the hip flexors.
- Begin in a seated position, contract your abdominal muscles and core, and lift your legs up to a 45-degree angle.
- Reach your arms straight forward or reach up toward your shins as you are able.
- Maintain good core posture and a strong spine.
- Hold this “V” position for several seconds to begin. As you get stronger, hold the position longer.
- Return to your starting position slowly.
- Just before you reach the floor, stop and hold the position for a few seconds.
- Repeat this entire movement several times.
If you could only do one weight training exercise to promote muscle strength, tone, power, and core strength it would be hard not to choose the full squat exercise. The beauty and simplicity of the full squat is often overlooked by recreational exercisers, but most elite and pro athletes use the squat as the basis of a well-rounded weight training program.
This king of all compound exercises takes some instruction and practice to master. Incorrectly performed full squats may lead to injury so it is essential that you learn how to do a squat safely. A session with a certified personal or athletic trainer can help you gain experience and confidence when performing the squat. It is also recommended that you check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise regimen.
The bridge exercise is a great way to isolate and strengthen the gluteus (butt) muscles and hamstrings (back of the upper leg). If you do this exercise correctly, you also will find that it is a good core strengthening exercise that strengthens both the abdominal muscles as well as the lower back muscles.
- Lay on your back with your hands by your sides, your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Make sure your feet are under your knees.
- Tighten your abdominal and buttock muscles.
- Raise your hips up to create a straight line from your knees to shoulders.
- Squeeze your core and try to pull your belly button back toward your spine.
- If your hips sag or drop, lower yourself back on the floor.
- The goal is to maintain a straight line from your shoulders to your knees and hold for 20 to 30 seconds. You may need to begin by holding the bridge position for a few seconds as you build your strength. It’s better to hold the correct position for a shorter time than to go longer in the incorrect position.
- If you find the basic Bridge Exercise too easy, you may want to move up to the One-leg Bridge Exercise.
Another ab exercise to add to your routine is the Hip Lift. It strengthens the rectus abdominis (the muscle between the ribs and hips), and the obliques (muscles that run down the sides of the torso). Try to work up to two sets of 10 to 12 repetitions, with a short break between. In addition to other ab exercises, you can do this several times a week.
Begin by lying on your back with your arms by your sides, palms facing up. Raise your legs so they are straight up toward the ceiling and perpendicular to your torso.
Pull your navel toward your spine and lift your hips a few inches off the floor, keeping your legs pointed straight up. Then slowly lower your hips back to the floor.
- Lie face down on a mat with your arms stretched above your head (like superman)
- Raise your right arm and left leg about 5-6 inches off the ground (or as far as you comfortably can).
- Hold for 3 seconds and relax.
- Repeat with the opposite arm and leg.
The lunge with twist exercise builds is a great core exercise that also builds lower body strength. Performing a walking lunge while alternating a medicine ball from right to left engages the quads, glutes, and core, while improving balance and proprioception.
Using this type of stability exercise isolates your quads and hamstrings with the lunge motion; adding the twisting motion (with or without added weight) causes your glutes to contract more fully while it engages your core. The medicine ball walking lunge is also a great way to challenge your balance and engage muscles that are used while performing any exercise your perform one leg at a time, such as running, cross country skiing, and even cycling. You can also use this as a warm-up exercise to get blood flow to many muscles at one time.
- Stand with feet about shoulder width apart.
- Hold a medicine ball (optional) in front of you with elbows bent about 90 degrees. You may want to begin this exercise with no weight and build up your strength over time.
- Step forward with your left foot into a lunge position.
- Be sure to keep your knee over your left foot; don’t twist at the knee.
- From your torso, twist your upper body to the left. Then, reach across your left side with your arms out-stretched. (Think of pointing to the left from your belly button).
- Maintain a slow and controlled movement throughout the exercise.
- Slowly move your arms to centre and step forward with the opposite foot and twist to the other side.
- Continue the movement for about ten steps
- Complete 2 sets.
Advanced Medicine Ball Lunge with Twist:
Because shoes offer additional support, you can increase the difficulty of this exercise by performing it barefoot. This engages the small muscles of the foot and ankle that stabilise the ankle and maintain balance.
Turn this into a Walking Medicine Ball Lunge by performing the exercise as you walk forward 10 steps. Do 2 sets.
Lying windscreen wipers
Lie on your back with arms out to the sides. Lift your legs straight up in the air until the hips are at 90 degrees. Keeping your legs straight and maintaining the hip angle, rotate the legs to one side. Go as far as you can keeping your upper back and shoulders on the floor. Bring the legs to a halt, pull them back up to the start position and then over to the other side.
Straight leg raise
- Lie on your back with knees bent. Brace your abdominals and lift your legs up straight in the air to an angle of 45 degrees keeping you back on the ground.
- Keeping one leg in the air, slowly lower the other down to the floor. Only go as far as you can until you feel the lumbar spine start to move.
- Keep bracing the abdominals and then lift the leg slowly back up. Repeat with the other leg.
Side lying hip abduction
- Lie on your side with your top hip above the lower hip.
- Brace the abdominals and lift the top leg slowly up and down.
Lying Ball Squeeze
The lying ball squeeze is a good exercise to work both the Adductors (inner thigh muscles) and strengthen the core.
To perform the lying ball squeeze you should start on your back, arms extended out to the sides, palms down – this will stop your upper body from rolling around.
With your feet on the floor and knees bent, place a soft ball between your knees, keeping it firmly in place by squeezing your thighs together.
Contract your abs, then slowly lower your knees to one side. Be sure to keep your butt, arms and back in contact with the floor at all times. When your knees touch the floor, return to the starting position, then repeat to the other side.
If this is easy for you, you can make it more difficult by performing it with your feet off the floor. Be sure to keep your legs bent at 90 degrees, pelvis tilted upwards, and use your lower abs to control the movement.
For more advanced exercisers, you can increase the difficulty further by placing the ball between your ankles. When done this way you should take your feet to the side, using your core and oblique muscles to control the movement and be sure you don’t twist too far around.
Whichever variation you use, a soft ball is better than a medicine ball – no chance of getting hurt if you drop it!
Beginners should aim for 8 – 12 reps each side with feet on the floor; Intermediates 12 – 15 each side, feet off floor, legs at 90 degrees; Advanced should aim for 12 – 15 reps each side, performed with straight legs
Hands to Knees
The Hands to Knees is an ideal exercise for beginners, but will also be effective for more advanced exercisers. As with all abdominal exercises, you should be sure to use correct abdominal technique.
The starting position for Hands to Knees is on your back, legs bent, hands resting lightly on your thighs. Using only the abdominal muscles, curl slowly upwards – first the shoulders, then the upper back – sliding your hands up your leg towards your knees.
When your hands reach your knees, pause, then slowly lower back down. It is particularly important to control the movement on the way back down.
Pause at the bottom, to ensure that you don’t develop any momentum, then repeat.
As with all abs exercises, remember that the slower you work, the more you’ll get out of it.
Your chin should be on your chest throughout the movement – if your neck aches, you can gently support your head with one hand.
Smaller, more controlled movements will yield the best results, really feeling your abs contract the whole time.
Beginners should aim for two sets of 8 – 12 reps; Intermediates two sets of 15 – 20 reps; Advanced should do three sets of 20+ reps. Rest for 20 seconds between sets.
So that gives you an idea of core strengthening exercises you can do which are not sit-ups. If you have recently had a baby, you may want to adapt your core strengthening programme and/or seek the advice of a personal trainer as to what core exercises are suitable for you.
Rachel Law is a personal fitness trainer based in New Malden, Surrey. Qualifications: ActivIQ Level 3 Personal Training; Burrell Education Pregnancy Exercise Prescription; Burrell Education Advanced Pregnancy Wellness Practitioner; Burrell Education Advanced Post Natal Exercise Prescription; Burrell Education 3rd Age Women Optimal Health and Nutrition; Burrell Education Peri Natal Athlete; Burrell Education Pelvic Flow and Freedom; Olympic Weight Lifting; Premier Global Kettlebells; FIE Level Assessment and Mentoring