Having a solid core is arguably one of the most important muscle groups to build and maintain above all else. This is because a strong and flexible core helps considerably enhance one’s balance, posture, and also helps deter both short and long-term lower back pain, which is great. That’s not to mention it’s magical effect of dramatically increasing one’s physical allure..
That said, a developed core is nothing short of an invaluable asset to have. This is especially true if you’re into fitness and enjoy occasional fun sweaty activities. So, benefits aside, let’s go over your personal goals and cover how these exercises can help you effectively reach them.
Whether you’re looking to build muscle, burn fat, or just enhance your overall well-being in some way, there are two simple ways to attain a better abdomen. These two necessities are either lower your body fat or to add depth. More often than not a combination of the two is required.
So, with the virtually endless amount of exercises available, choosing the best exercises for that reason can be understandably daunting. With that in mind, we did the research to bring you the 15 most effective core exercises with explanations and instructions. Let’s get started!
1. Body-weight Core Crunch
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Pull, Isolation | Gear: None | Target: Abs, obliques
Asked to think of a core building exercise, it’s likely most people would bring up the crunch. This internationally renowned exercise is used across the world by virtually everyone as either as a physical fitness evaluation tool, fat burner, core strengthener, or effective combo thereof.
Crunches are, in practice, a very simple movement. But, if it’s your first time – or it’s just been a while – we’ve got your back. The first part of performing a crunch is to set up into the proper form. Lie on the floor with your back and bend your legs close together into a 90-degree angle.
Then, bring your hands next to each other (not touching) behind your head. To stay stable during the movement, you’ll need an anchor to prevent foot movement. You can either have a friend (spotter) keep your feet still or use a heavy, unmoving object to secure your feet under.
With your knees pointing up, feet locked, and torso laying back, exhale and engage your abs to steadily raise your upper body forward toward your knees. Your back may arch slightly during this, however, your legs should not move whatsoever. Pause at the top and squeeze your core.
Finally, inhale and slowly return to the starting position with your back resting on the floor.
Pro Tip: Improve core isolation by rolling your shoulders forward slightly when you begin your initial lean forward off the ground. Remember to stay slow and steady to avoid any momentum.
2. Body-weight Core Reverse Plank
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Push, Compound | Gear: None | Target: Shoulders, Abs, Obliques, Glutes
Arguably one of the most effective exercises for building a strong, rigid core is planking (and its wide-range of variations). This variation, in particular, can leave even the best trainers with an interior burn as it recruits parts of your shoulders, glutes, back and especially abs to keep up.
Body-weight Reverse Plank Directions
Your goal will be to keep your body straight and spine neutral at all times. First setup proper form. Sit on the ground and extend your legs out in front of you at hip-width with your feet pointed up and heels on the ground. Next, plant your arms straight down palms facing ahead.
With your arms locked down in a support position and legs out in front, exhale and lean your torso back while simultaneously raising your hips to match it until your body is as straight as a plank at arm’s length. Hold this position for the desired time or until you can’t hold it anymore.
Pro Tip: Reverse planking can be become (very) challenging after the first set- if you choose to continue. As such, maintaining good form is vital for seeing results. If you catch yourself slipping (body uneven, hips lowering), stop the movement and continue when you’re rested.
3. Body-weight Plank
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Push, Isolation | Gear: None| Target: Abs, Legs, Obliques, Upper C
Regular planks are classic, effective, safe, and most importantly – easy to do. They don’t need too much explanation for preparing form and movement making them ideal core exercises. They work a wide range of muscle groups like legs, abs, sides, obliques, and chest to boot.
Body-weight Plank Directions
Place a mat on the floor and gently lower yourself into a prone position over it. Fully extended and close together, use the balls of your feet to raise your legs off the floor. At the same time, bend your arms and keep them straight beneath your shoulder to form an “L” shape. This will be both your starting and ending position. Keep your body straight and elevated until burnout.
Pro Tip: If you find yourself holding a plank for more than a few minutes, then it’s probably a good time to increase the difficulty. Do this by switching variations or raising an arm or a leg.
4. Ab Roller
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Pull, Compound | Gear: Ab Roller | Target: Core, legs, hips, chest, back
Also known as the ‘wheel roll-out’, this exercise is best known for targeting one the highest amount of stabilizer and secondary muscles in addition to core. This is because your body needs a whole lot of assistance when it comes to keeping an unstable plank straight and still
Ab Roller Directions
Place an ab roller on the floor in front of you on the floor and kneel down. Your knees and below shouldn’t move at all for this next part. Ensure your feet are pointing down and close together. Lean forward slightly and grab the ab roller’s side handles. This will be your starting position.
Inhaling, extend your arms ahead of you and roll forward with your torso until you feel a solid amount of tension in your core. The farther out the roller is from your body the more tension you’ll feel and vice versa. Hold this position for as long as possible before reversing back up.
Pro Tip: Perform this exercise slowly and maintain a neutral spine at all times. If you have a history with lower back trouble or hernias, we suggest avoiding this as a simple precaution.
5. Single Dumbbell Side Bend
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Pull, Isolation | Gear: 1 Dumbbell | Target: Obliques (Inner and Outer)
Those of you looking to add mass to your obliques and improve physical stability needn’t look any further. The single dumbbell (don’t use two!) side bend is great for building both internal and external groups as well as a variety of other smaller, synergistic muscles that add balance. That said, it’s a great exercise that’ll help you lose the love handles alongside your midsection.
Single Dumbbell Side Bend Directions
Standing straight at shoulder width, grasp a dumbbell using a neutral grip with your right hand and hold it at arm’s length by your side. The palm of your working hand (right) should face the side of your body. Bring your non-working (left) hand behind your head. This is how you’ll start.
Inhale and slowly lower the dumbbell in your working hand as far as possible without straining yourself. Engage your obliques to control its descent. After you’ve lowered the weight to your maximum, exhale and reverse the movement back to the top and switch hands to finish one rep.
Pro Tip: Don’t hold a 2nd weight in your non-working hand as it’ll act as a counterweight to your working hand. Moreover, don’t let your waist flex beyond anything more than a mild stretch during the movement. Aside from your obliques and upper back, you should be stationary.
6. Russian Twist with Medicine Ball
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Pull, Isolation | Gear: Med Ball | Target: Abs, Obliques, Sides
Also known as Seated Oblique Twists, this exercise is most popular among cyclists. This is because it targets a wide range of deep core muscles like abs as well as the inner and outer obliques. And, because it involves keeping a weight steady, expect assistive muscle growth.
Russian Twist Directions
Sit on the floor with your legs out and bent 90-degrees at hip-width in front of you. Grasp a medicine ball and lean back slightly, holding it in place at shoulder height centered between your thighs. Elbows slightly bent, your palms should be cupping the ball facing each other.
This will be your starting position. Exhale and slowly rotate your upper body to the right about 45-degrees and touch the floor with the ball at the end of the movement. Your waist and legs should remain still at all times. Return to your starting position, raising your arms as you do so.
Next, perform the exact same motion on the left side of your body as you did to your right before returning back to the center to complete one full rep. End your set by gently placing the ball on the floor in front of you, careful not to overextend or use your lower back.
Pro Tip: If it’s your first time, or if it’s been a while, we recommend starting with a low weight (or none at all) to practice good form first to prevent back rounding. If the ball alone isn’t hard enough for your titan of a body, raise and hold your legs off the floor for increased difficulty.
7. Back Raise Twist
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Pull, Compound | Gear: Hyperextension Bench | Target: Abs, Legs, Spine
Contrary to popular belief, amassing a strong core involves much more than just lasering the abs with 500 crunches a day for a six-pack. This is where the back raise twist comes in to play. It’s a simple variation of the regular back extension and works to build a rock-solid lower back. This is mission critical for many reasons, but namely better stability (less chance of an injury).
Back Raise Twist Directions
If necessary, position the bench’s height so that the top of it ends at the top of your thighs. Next, stand into it with your feet held firmly against the padding. Your back should be slightly arched in line with your legs and hands on your head. This will be your starting position.
Inhale and slowly lean your torso forward until you feel a mild stretch on your lower back. Then reverse the movement and steadily return to your starting position. At the top, engage your core and slowly rotate your torso about 45-degrees to the right until you feel a mild stretch.
Next, reverse the movement and return to the starting position. Complete the exact same motion except twist to the left side instead of the right to finish one rep. Repeat as desired.
Pro Tip: If body-weight isn’t hard enough for your fitness, increase the difficulty by raising your arms above your head or by holding a moderately comfortable weight plate across your chest. Remember to keep your head neutral (in line) and not to hyperextend or round out your back.
8. Captain’s Chair Knee Raise
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Pull, Compound | Gear: Captain’s | Target: Abs, Sides, Inner Legs
Also known as a ‘roman chair vertical crunch’, you’ve likely seen someone perform this popular exercise in the gym. That’s largely due to the fact it’s such an effective deep core trainer. In addition, it also works a number of stabilizing muscles critical for healthy, effective growth.
Captain’s Chair Knee Raise Directions
Find an unoccupied Captain Chair station and stand up straight in it facing forward. Hold onto the vertical bars extending out in front of you with a neutral (palms sideways) grip. Once you’re ready to begin, drive your body straight up off the ground. This will be your starting position.
Breathe out and focus on contracting your core to raise your knees up to your chest. Your lower back should arch forward slightly, but not beyond a mild stretch. Squeeze your abs at the top.
Breathe in and slowly reverse the movement to return to the starting position, resisting your knee’s gravity on the way down. Repeat this movement for the desired amount of reps.
Pro Tip: If the captain’s chair’s occupied you can also use a dip station, which is the same thing without handles. Granted, it’ll likely be harder to keep your body stable.
9. Bicycle Crunch
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Push/Pull, Compound | Gear: None | Target: Abs, Obliques, Waist, Hip
Performing a bicycle crunch is, as its name suggests, similar to how you’d ride a bike. Except the one small difference being you’re horizontal, on the floor, doing all sorts of things you wouldn’t normally do on an actual bike. Sounds fun right? It can be, particularly for your abs.
Bicycle Crunch Directions
Lie horizontally on the floor with your feet elevated above your hips pointing straight out in front of your body. You should feel tension in your core. Place your hands around the back of your head until they’re almost touching each other. Your back should be slightly raised.
This will be your starting position. Exhale and bend your left knee up to your waist (about 90-degrees). As you do this, contract your core to rotate the right side of your upper body leftward until you’re facing the raised knee. Both movements should start and finish at the same time.
Inhale and, like you’re pedaling a bike, straighten out your raised knee (left leg) while bending your formerly extended right leg about 90-degrees at the same time. Then rotate the opposite side to your raised knee as you did before, which is now your left. Repeat for desired reps.
Pro Tip: One full rep consists of two crunches- one for each side of the body. Because they aren’t overly demanding alone, we suggest pushing through until the end of your set. As always, it’s important to
10. Core Reverse Crunch
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Pull, Isolation | Gear: None | Target: Abs, Obliques, Waist
The reverse crunch is easily one of the most underestimated basic and deep core exercises to exist. That’s because it hits the best of both muscular groups to improve overall strength, stability, and movement. This also helps lessen the chance of receiving a fitness induced injury.
Reverse Crunch Directions
The first step in performing a reverse crunch is to lie down flat on the ground with your back and extend your feet out in front of you at hip-width. Next, bend your knees back until they’re just pointing up at the ceiling. Your upper body should remain still at all times.
When your form is in place, prepare the movement by bringing your legs up until your thighs line up over and across your abdomen. This will be your starting position. Inhaling, bring your knees close to your abs until they contact your chest while also rolling back and elevating your hips.
Once your legs are at the top of their movement, pause for a second and focus on squeezing your core. Exhale and slowly lower your legs and hips back into the initial starting position.
Pro Tip: Remember to perform this movement slowly and steadily. If you’re having trouble maintaining a flat, straight lower back, try placing your hands underneath your buttocks.
11. Side-Lying Hip Raise
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Push, Isolation | Gear: None | Target: Obliques, Inner Legs, Hip, Sides
Side-lying hip raises go by a notably wide list of names, but most people refer to it as just that. Often used as a warm-up movement on leg day, it’s particularly effective at targeting the abs, hips, sides, legs, waist, and lateral glutes making it a prized overall butt developer too.
Lying Side Plank Hip Raise Directions
Place a floor mat down and lie on it with the left side of your body. Use your left arm to hold your torso up by extending it across the floor perpendicular to your body. Your elbow should be under your shoulder. Now extend your legs out together and bring your body into alignment.
With your (right) free hand you can either place and hold a dumbbell on your hip or simply use body weight. This will be your starting position. Exhale and lift your hip up until you feel a mild amount of tension in your sides by pressing your feet down and laterally engaging your back.
Once you’ve reached the peak of your movement, inhale and slowly descend back to the starting position to complete one full rep. Repeat as desired.
Pro Tip: Breezing through core exercises with ease is both a blessing and a curse. Increase the difficulty by (carefully) adding a plate on top of your hip if body-weight is to easy. Remember to keep your legs and hips straight like a plank and always keep your neck forward at all times.
12. Flat-Bench Barbell Twist
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Isolation | Gear: Bench, Barbell | Target: External Obliques, Abs
Also referred to as the seated barbell twist, this exercise is highly effective for isolating the core external oblique muscles. This is helpful for a number of reasons, but namely to chisel one’s physique, improve overall physical stability, and build deep-rooted strength.
Flat-Bench Barbell Twist Directions
You’ll need to set a few things up prior to being able to perform this exercise. First rack a barbell into a power-frame at shoulder height, then grasp it using a medium grip and mount it onto your traps just above the shoulders. Next, find and sit on a flat bench. Your back should be straight and feet spread apart at about shoulder-width. This will be your starting position.
Exhale and slowly engage both sides of your oblique muscles by slowly twisting side-to-side. Inhale and switch directions when you feel a mild degree of waist tension. Don’t rotate past what you can handle and remember to keep your back and head still as you twist.
Pro Tip: Remember to maintain proper form at all times and keep your head facing forward- don’t move it with the twist motion. Also, start off with light weight before increasing difficulty.
13. Ab Crunch Machine
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Pull, Isolation | Gear: Crunch Machine | Target: Abs, Obliques
In most gyms, this machine is almost always being used- and with good reason. It’s an excellent isolating movement for your abdominal core and lower back that helps keep you fixed in one place, preventing you from any sliding or twisting around possible in a regular crunch.
Ab Crunch Machine Directions
There are two types of Ab crunch resistance machines: weight stack and plate. Regardless of which kind you use, adjust the height (if necessary) and set an easy, comfortable amount of weight. Next, sit into the chair and lock your feet in place under the padding. Finally, grasp the bars above you using a neutral grip. Rest your triceps on the padding if they’re available.
This is your starting position. Exhale and contract your abdominal muscles to crunch forward while simultaneously pressing your legs up toward your chest. Aside from your core, the rest of your body should be stationary and only move with the machine’s motion. Once you reach the bottom, pause for a moment, squeeze your abs, then inhale and slowly return to the bottom.
Pro Tip: Remember to use a low amount of weight that’s decently easy to execute! Unlike most movements, aim for high reps and low weight to prevent an otherwise easily attainable injury.
14. Incline Bench Leg + Hip Raises
Difficulty: Easy| Force: Pull, Isolated | Gear: Incline Bench | Target: Abs, Obliques, Upper Legs
This well-known variation of the flat-bench lying leg raise is popular for training abdominal muscle strength and improving hip flexor stability. Hitting this group is important for not only preventing potential future injury by increasing resilience but also helps aesthetically tone too.
Incline Bench Leg + Hip Raise Directions
Start this exercise by lying down supine (on your back) on an incline bench angled 45-degrees. Your torso should be slightly arched upward as well. Extend your legs out in front of you at hip width, arms grasping the bar behind your head for
Once your form’s in the proper position, perform the movement by first exhaling and flexing your hip to raise your legs up until you feel a moderate amount of constant tension. Hold this position and squeeze your core for a second before reversing the movement and then slowly lower your legs back to the starting position, resisting any momentum on the way down.
Pro Tip: Remember to never touch the bench with your hands and instead grasp the pad behind your head. Focus on contracting your abdomen and legs to raise upward- not your lower back. Also, the straighter your knees are, the more difficult the exercise will be and vice versa.
15. Kneeling Core Cable Crunch
Difficulty: Easy | Force: Pull, Isolation | Gear: Cable Machine | Target: Abs, External Obliques
Finally, those of you looking to sculpt a striking core needn’t look further than the cable crunch. This popular core-building exercise involves pulling down a rope, handle or band attached to a cable stack machine to directly induce muscular hypertrophy to increase abdominal depth.
Kneeling Cable Crunch Directions
Attach a band, rope or handle of your choice to a cable stack machine and adjust its height to the highest slot position. If you use a band, you’ll need to anchor it at the top. Grasp the handle with both hands and position yourself so that it’s parallel above your neck. Kneel onto the floor.
With your face forward and elbows locked out in front, lean your upper body forward. This will be your starting position. Exhaling, engage your abs and waist to crunch forward. Once your elbows touch your thighs, pause and hold this position for a moment to squeeze your core.
Breathe in and reverse the movement to slowly return back to your starting position. Your hips should not move at any point during this exercise. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Pro Tip: As always, be mindful of the weight setting you choose and try to aim for a moderately comfortable amount to prevent “cheating” with your back or hamstrings. Only use your abs.