Best Exercises for Core Strength

Strengthen your core muscle to build a better body

Abdominal exercise
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The best core 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 toned abs. But the abs have very limited and specific action, and what experts refer to as the "core" actually consists of different muscles that run the entire length of the torso.

When these muscles contract, they stabilize the spine, pelvis, and shoulder girdle and create a solid base of support for powerful movements of your extremities. Core conditioning exercise programs need to target all these muscle groups to be effective.

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Watch Now: 8 Exercises for a Quick Core Routine

Anatomy of the Core Muscles

Experts vary in which muscles they consider to be the core muscles. Some include the muscles of the pelvic floor. 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 its 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, they run in the opposite direction.
  • Transverse abdominis: 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 the psoas major, illiacus, rectus femoris, pectineus, and sartorius.
  • Gluteus medius and minimus: These are located at the side of the hip.
  • Gluteus maximus, hamstring group, piriformis: These are located in the back of the hip and upper thigh leg.
  • Hip adductors: These are located at medial thigh and draw the legs into the midline.

Benefits of Core Strength

One of the primary aims of core exercise training is to prevent injuries that can occur if you don't properly support the spine. Among the key benefits of core strength

Reduction of Back Pain

Abdominals get all the credit for protecting the back and 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 lumbar curve and a swayback posture. Stronger, balanced core muscles help maintain appropriate posture and reduce strain on the spine.

Athletic Performance

Because the muscles of the trunk and torso stabilize 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 center 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.

Improvement of 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.

Exercise Preparations

Rather than isolating the abs, core strengthening exercises are most effective when the torso works as a solid unit with both front and back muscles contracting at the same time. These exercises should be multi-joint movements, and you should monitor the stabilization of your spine.

Abdominal bracing is a foundational technique used during core training. It involves pulling your navel toward the spine, engaging your transverse abdominus muscle to stabilize the back and pelvis.

Many core strengthening exercises can be done at home with no equipment. Some workouts can be done by adding stability balls and medicine balls to your regular workouts. Balance products, such as a BOSU ball, balance board, and wobble board can also be used.

The Best Core Exercises

Researchers have compared different abdominal and core exercises for their effect on abdominal muscle activation. In clinical settings, these comparisons tend to be narrow in scope, evaluating one or two exercises for their impact on a specific outcome.

For example, in 2014, researchers compared plank-style exercises (defined as that core exercises requiring activation of the shoulders and glutes) to core exercises that only require activation of the primary trunk muscles. They determined that a routine that incorporates plank exercises is more effective for maximizing strength, improving stability, reducing injury, and maintaining mobility in the core region.

A 2019 study compared the plank exercise to a bilateral leg raise. Researchers concluded that the plank was more effective for activating the internal oblique muscles while the leg raise was more effective for strengthening the rectus abdominis.

Another study compared the leg raise to the sit-up to determine which provided most activation to the upper and lower rectus abdominis, external oblique, rectus femoris, and the iliopsoas. These researchers concluded that the eccentric phase of the sit-up had the most outstanding effect on the abdominal muscles involved in stability of the trunk. The eccentric phase is the lowering phase of the sit-up.

But these studies compare just a few exercises. And published research is usually conducted by clinicians interested in advancements in rehabilitation or physical therapy settings. What if you are a healthy individual who is looking for the best abdominal exercise to do at the gym for a strong core—with the benefit of a nice-looking six pack?

There has been limited research comparing all ab exercises for healthy individuals. One informal study conducted by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) is widely referenced in gym settings. The organization compared the effectiveness of 13 of the most common abdominal exercises and ranked them from most to least effective.

The result? For abdominal strength the three top exercises were determined to be the bicycle maneuver, the captain's chair, and crunches on an exercise ball. For strengthening the obliques, the three top exercises were determined to be the captain’s chair, the bicycle maneuver, and the reverse crunch.

It should be noted that at the time this research was conducted by ACE, few people were doing the plank. Also, core training was just becoming popular. Since the time of the original study, the organization has published commentary on whether or not the plank is the best core exercise.

In one article, Dr. Wayne Wescott, a fitness researcher and consultant with ACE suggests that although planks can be a good addition to your workout, it has drawbacks— particularly that it is most often performed as a static exercise. He and other experts suggest that variety is the key to success.

Core Workouts

Core exercises are most effective when they engage multiple muscles throughout the torso that crosses several joints and works together to coordinate stability. Some of the best core exercises are simple bodyweight exercises, including the following workouts and individual exercises.

  • Quick core workout: If you want a simple, effective core workout, this routine doesn't take much time or equipment but covers all the basic core muscles.
  • Standing ab workout: You don't need to get on the floor for this workout that uses many of the best core exercises.
  • Yoga and pilates also challenge your balance, flexibility, and torso strength.

Individual Exercises

A Word From Verywell

A strong, fit core helps your daily activities become easier to do and improves your performance in sports and exercise. You can incorporate core strengthening into your workouts by taking some of your ab exercises off the floor and doing them standing or on a stability ball.

Don't settle for a six-pack when you can strengthen your entire core.

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Article Sources
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