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 core 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.
  • 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 middle 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. There are many key benefits of core strength, including reduced back pain, improved athletic performance, and improved daily functioning.

Reduced 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.

Enhanced 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.

Improved Functional Fitness

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.

Core Strengthening

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.

Best Core Exercises, According to Research

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.

A study in the Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation compared the plank exercise to a bilateral leg raise. They found 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 the 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?

A review of scientific literature revealed some consensus on the best exercises for specific muscle groups, based on electromyography (EMG) of muscles during exercise.

Electromyography (EMG)

This is a method of measuring a muscle's response to a stimulus, such as exercise. It can also be used as a diagnostic tool for certain neuromuscular problems.

The results of a review of 67 studies showed the following exercises rated highly for these muscle groups.

Rectus Abdominus

Bulgarian squats holding free weights was one of the most activating exercises for this muscle group, along with a roll-out plank and sit-ups with the lower back on an exercise ball.

Internal Obliques

Front plank won out as the most effective exercise. Kettlebell swings were also high on the list, although those with back ailments should avoid kettlebell swings.

External Obliques

The highest EMG activity for the external obliques occured with free weight exercises, such as Bulgarian squat. The farther forward the front leg, the more effective the exercise. Work up to increase the distance as you gain fitness.

Erector Spinae

Barbell exercises like deadlifts, hip thrusts, and back squats were all found to optimally engage the erector spinae muscles.

Transverse Abdominus

Suspension training equipment exercises ranked highest in terms of EMG activation. However, bodyweight exercises like the bird-dog also ranked highly for engaging the transverse abdominus in studies.

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. It includes plank variations, V-sits, bicycle crunches, bridges, and more. It is appropriate for beginners through advanced exercisers.

Standing Ab Workout

You don't need to get on the floor for this standing ab workout that uses many of the best core exercises. Make sure to warm up with some cardio before doing a core workout so blood is flowing to your core muscles. As your fitness improves, add intensity by standing on an unstable surface such as a BOSU ball.

Yoga or Pilates Workout

Yoga and Pilates also challenge your balance, flexibility, and torso strength. The core is activated and strengthened anytime you require stability. Yoga poses and Pilates mat moves often make this demand on the core. Aim for things that require balance and stability to get the best core workout from these disciplines.

Individual Core 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.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. Core conditioning--it's not just about abs.

  2. Frizziero A, Pellizzon G, Vittadini F, Bigliardi D, Costantino C. Efficacy of core stability in non-specific chronic low back pain. J Funct Morphol Kinesiol. 2021;6(2):37. doi:10.3390/jfmk6020037

  3. Park DJ, Park SY. Which trunk exercise most effectively activates abdominal muscles? A comparative study of plank and isometric bilateral leg raise exercises. BMR. 2019;32(5):797-802. doi:10.3233/BMR-181122

  4. Kim K, Lee T. Comparison of muscular activities in the abdomen and lower limbs while performing sit-up and leg-raiseJ Phys Ther Sci. 2016;28(2):491–494. doi:10.1589/jpts.28.491

  5. Oliva-Lozano JM, Muyor JM. Core muscle activity during physical fitness exercises: a systematic review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(12):4306. doi:10.3390/ijerph17124306

By Elizabeth Quinn
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.