Core muscles are used by everyone all day, every day, so keeping them in peak condition is important.
Your core encompasses numerous muscles, Nataly Komova, a fitness and nutritionist expert at JustCBD explains.
“Typically, the core includes the obliques, transverse abdominis, multifidus and erector spinae,” she said. “Other muscles forming the core include diaphragm, glutes, pelvic floor, hip flexors, hip abductors ad hamstrings.”
The more external of these muscles are “aesthetically pleasing muscle groups,” according to Jason Bone, head of strength at FLEX Chelsea in London.
Strengthening your core can also help prevent injury, counteract a sedentary job and improve posture, Chiropractor Dr. Xandra Middleton adds.
She said: “By working on the core muscles, the spine has a strong foundation to support the upper body and maintain good posture.”
So whether you want to get toned abs, prevent back pain or simply improve posture, read on how to learn some great exercises to strengthen your core.
1. The Plank
Planks are widely recognised among fitness professionals as one of the best exercises for core conditioning—and numerous versions are on offer.
Fitness expert Komova said: “Plank targets your core and other body parts, including legs, arms, back, glutes, and shoulders. To perform this full-body exercise, get on your all fours, supporting your body weight with your forearms.
“With the legs behind you, slowly raise yourself up until you form a straight line from your knees to your head. Maintain this position for as long as you can and repeat the exercise 3 to 5 times.
2. Straight Arm / Side Planks
Chiropractor Dr. Middleton said: “A straight arm plank to work the full abdominal wall and I pair that with side planks to work the obliques muscles and also fire the buttock muscles at the same time.
“Working these exercises in a pattern of front plank 40 seconds and side planks 20 seconds is a great ratio for core strength.”
3. Commando Planks
Ponzu Fit leading instructor Gemma Russell calls this core exercise “awesome for targeting the upper body.”
She said: “Start in a high plank position, hands directly below the shoulders, come down onto your forearms into a low plank, push back up into a high plank, ensuring you are alternating hands to push your body back up into a high plank.”
4. Dumbbell Plank Drag
Fitness professional Jamie Lloyd, an ambassador for Bio-Synergy, recommends the dumbbell plank as one of the best exercises to help build up your core.
He said: “It is also useful for people trying to get stronger and to lose weight. It forces you to use a stabilization movement during each repetition. The dumbbell plank is performed standing with a dumbbell in both hands.
“You will start by holding the dumbbells between your legs at shoulder width. Next, bend your knees slightly and lock your knees out at a 90-degree angle so that your toes are pointed outwards. Make sure that your back is straight and that your chest is facing the floor. Next, lower the weights to your sides and repeat. Do 8 to 10 each.”
5. Plank Twist
There is a “great variation to the standard plank,” according to strength-building expert Jason Bone, because it forces the hips to rotate and drop, allowing it to take a significantly more strength from the core and upper body.
He said: “Start in a standard plank position, on your front with your elbow under the shoulders, body straight but with your feet slightly wider than usual. Twist your hip to one side with the aim to hit the floor with your hips.
“Drive the hips back up and around to the opposite side. Keep the pelvis tucked in not allowing to the lower back to arch putting pressure on the vertebrae. Maintain a strong, neutral head position without allowing the forehead to drop to the floor. Look to perform this exercise for 30 to 40 seconds if you need to you can drop to your knees.”
Personal Trainer Tom Opper suggests “virtually everybody should look to incorporate some variation of a Deadbug into their routine.”
He said: “Deadbugs are a fantastic exercise for improving your anterior (front) core stability, which carries over into increasing both the safety and effectiveness of your entire exercise routine.
“Why? If we do not engage our core properly during exercises such as heavy squats, deadlifts or overhead presses, it is all too easy for an excessive load to be placed on the lower back, which can significantly increase your risk of injury as the back hyperextends.”
Fitness instructor Gemma Russell added: “Lying on your back, legs at a 90 degree angle and arms straight up above your chest. As you extend your left leg out, your right arm will extend too, hovering just about the floor – bring back to centre and repeat on the opposite side. Ensure with this one that your lower back is pressed into the floor.”
Crunches strengthen the core as well as helping reduce lower back pain—and there are variations of this classic exercise available.
Fitness expert Nataly Komova said: “Lie on your back, with your knees bent and feet planted on the floor. Engage your core and keep your shoulders and neck relaxed.
“With your chin tucked in, lift your upper back, leaving the pelvis, feet, and lower back on the floor. Hold on for as long as you can and slowly lower the upper back on the floor. Do more sets to get the best results.”
8. Decline Crunch
Arj Thiruchelvam notes that this exercise is far from easy but insists it is worth the effort, saying “no matter your level of ability, this will challenge you.”
He added: “Secure yourself in a decline bench, work downwards to 45º and up to just less than 90 degrees. If you come too high you’re working your hip flexors.
“Instead, always focus on keeping tension in the abs and make it harder by holding a weight plate. Try 3 to 5 sets of 15 reps.”
9. Barbell Oblique Crunches
Thiruchelvam adds this other “incredibly demanding” variation which spawned the invention of the ab wheel, is also worth a try.
He said: “The roll-out has a high recruitment of abdominal muscles in order to brace the trunk, and therefore will give you a fantastic burn.
“Start with a short-range, build strength and go further whilst ensuring you don’t arch your back. I recommend 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps.”
This excursive classic is able to generate “functional killer core movements,” according to instructor Gemma Russell.
She said: “Start in on all four’s position and extend your right arm and left leg out at the same time, alternate between each side—perform each movement nice and slow, ensuring core and glutes are engaged.”
11. Standing Side Crunch
Joanna Dase, a fitness expert at Curves Gym, believes this is “a fantastic exercise and particularly good for those who struggle with floor exercises,” adding “It suits people who normally avoid core exercises due to pain or discomfort.”
She said: “Standing side crunch – stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your toes pointing forwards. Place your finger tips at the side of your temples with your elbows pointing out the sides (do this instead of placing your hands behind your head to avoid the risk of pulling your head forwards or sideways with your hands).
“Lean your body weight onto one leg. Pull your stomach in tight to engage your core and bend to one side bringing your knee up to meet your elbow. Avoid bending forwards or backwards but instead keep the spine aligned. Keep your elbows fixed as you bring your knee up to meet the elbow.
“Keep your hips in place so you are not swinging back and forth and look straight ahead. Straighten back up and either tap your foot to the floor and repeat or transfer to the other side.”
12. Pelvic Bridge
Chiropractor Dr. Xandra Middleton said: “Lying on their back with bent knees, they pull in their abdominal muscles and squeeze their buttocks to lift their pelvis up. Once lifted, they then straighten one leg keeping the knees in line and hold for 15 seconds.
“Repeating this 5 times per side. To add difficulty, placing the feet on a medicine ball to lift and keeping one foot on the ball whilst lifting the other leg straight adds in the complexity of movement.”
13. Supplements To Support Muscle Mass
Supplementing with whey protein powder can help to increase muscle mass, thereby strengthening your core muscles when exercising, according to Claire Murray, of wellness search engine Vitaminology.
She said: “Whey protein contains leucine, the most important branch chain amino acid (BCAA) needed for muscle building. Supplementing with chromium can also help the loss of excess body fat while preserving muscle.”
14. Anti Rotation
Aimee Cringle, CrossFit athlete and Gymshark ambassador, suggests so-called anti exercises allow for the generation of much higher force levels and recruitment of motor units rather than conventional movements and have a lower risk of injury.
She said: “Anti Rotation is a powerhouse movement—in simple terms it prevents rotation around the spine—the aim of the movement is to keep your shoulders square and in line over your hips with no lean to one side or the other whilst resisting a force which is trying to displace you. This movement teaches bracing and the ability to resist force especially in unstable situations.
“Use a Palloff Press with a thin red or black band (moving up in thickness as you progress the movement. Tie the band to a rig at chest height. Set up with feet at shoulder width in a quarter squat and the band held outstretched but with no tensions slightly in front of the shoulder closest to the rig.
“Apply tension to the band bringing it in line with the chest—this will create tension on the band and require you to resist the rotations to keep your shoulders in line over your hips. As you develop this exercise you can increase the complexity be moving your hands in and out whilst maintain the position of the band or challenging your foot positioning (staggered stance, kneeling etc).”