Man or woman, young or old, everybody wants a leaner, more defined core.
So, it’s no surprise that I’m often asked “what are the best core exercises?”
For most people, the first exercises that come to mind are sit-ups and crunches, but I don’t recommend them. Here’s why:
Dr. Stuart McGill, who is the world’s leading expert on spine health, and his colleagues have shown that one of the quickest ways to damage the lower back is to load the spine while repeatedly bending it back and forth…
…which is remarkably similar to what is going on when you perform a sit-up or crunch.
You might know someone whose back ‘just went’ during a simple everyday task, like picking up a pencil from the floor, lifting a bag from the car, or even just sneezing.
“Very few back injuries, however, result from a single event”, says McGill. Instead, most injuries to the lower back are the result of damage accumulated over time. And the event that appeared to cause the injury was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.
While there’s a time and a place for every exercise, for most people there are much safer and more effective exercise choices than sit-ups and crunches.
And that’s exactly what you’re going to find in this list.
So if you’re already following a program that includes sit-ups or crunches, you can simply substitute them for one of these 11 best core exercises. And if you haven’t started yet, these exercises will help you hit the ground running.
So, with further ado, here are the 11 best bodyweight core exercises, ordered roughly from easiest to most difficult:
- Hollow Body Hold
- Dead Bug
- Bird Dog
- Plank Variations
- Superman (aka Back Extension)
- Reverse Crunch
- Suitcase Carry or Hold
- Suspension Trainer Bodysaw
- Hanging Leg-Raise
- Ab Wheel Rollout or Suspension Trainer Fallout
- Bonus Exercise: Chin-Up
Note: click on any exercise to jump to it in the blog post.
The 11 Best Core Exercises
1. Hollow Body Hold
On their first day of training, gymnasts learn the hollow-body hold.
It’s a foundational position that involves bracing your abdominals and creating total-body tension, and it’s integral to many other movements in the sport.
While you may not be a gymnast, the hollow body hold is still immensely beneficial. Learning how to do it correctly will teach you how to engage your core so you can get the most out of all the other best core exercises in this list.
Our friends from GMB demonstrate how it should be done:
2. Dead Bug
Dead bugs look easy.
But if they feel easy, you’re almost certainly doing them wrong.
Your back should be flush against the ground throughout, which is accomplished by keeping your core braced (in the same way as you would for hollow body hold). The movement should be slow and controlled.
Tony Gentilcore demonstrates how NOT to do them:
And here’s how they SHOULD look:
3. Bird Dog
The bird dog help you do two important things:
- Improve your balance.
- Develop the muscles on the ‘back’ of your core (i.e. your posterior chain).
This second point is particularly important. If you only train the muscles on the ‘front’ of your core (i.e. the abs), you’re going to run into problems like lower-back pain.
Legendary strength coach, Dan John, demonstates a few variations here:
And here’s a more challenging variant from Jordan Syatt:
4. Plank Variations
If you’re just starting out on your journey to get fit and healthy, planks can make a good starting point.
The only problem is that the standard plank quickly becomes too easy (the world record for the longest held plank is 1 hour and 20 minutes!)
If you want to build a strong and muscular core, you need to challenge yourself in new ways. Here are some variations to toughen up the standard plank and make sure you’re getting more bang for your buck:
The traditional plank can be made more difficult by removing a contact point from the floor. From the standard plank position:
- Raise one foot off the ground and hold it there.
- Make sure to hold your body still and keep your spine in a “neutral” position (no arching or rounding your back).
- Avoid tilting sideways.
- Switch legs every 5-10 seconds.
Here’s how it should look:
The side plank targets many smaller core muscles that are often neglected.
It’s tougher than a regular plank so you won’t be able to hold it for as long. Start out with short holds of 10 seconds on each side, and work your way up.
RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge) Plank
This is my personal favorite plank variation.
The general idea is that you are creating tension throughout your whole body by actively contracting your muscles. This should make you tremble and make it impossible to hold for an extended period of time.
In the video below Bret Contreras does a great job of describing the RKC plank:
5. Superman (aka Back Extension)
Like the Bird Dog, this is another bodyweight exercise that is great for the posterior chain (i.e. the muscles on the ‘back’ of your core).
To take pressure off your lower back, the movement should come from simultaneously squeezing your glutes and shoulder blades.
Here’s how it should look:
6. Reverse Crunch
These are the opposite of regular crunches. And unlike regular crunches, they help improve your posture.
They’re easier than some of the other exercises on this list, but they definitely shouldn’t be underestimated. If you’ve never done them before you will get sore.
It’s important that you keep your core tight throughout this exercise (tense it as if somebody was going to punch you in the stomach).
Steve Kamb from Nerd Fitness shows you how to get them right:
7. Suitcase Carry or Hold
This is a personal favorite of mine.
Simply pick up something heavy in one hand (like a suitcase or dumbbell) and either walk with it or stand with it until your grip gives out.
The most important thing to remember is that the weight shouldn’t be pulling you over to the side. To get the most out of this exercise, you have to stand tall (chest up, shoulder blades back and down) and avoid leaning as much as possible.
Let’s get Tony Gentilcore back to demonstrate:
8. Suspension Trainer Bodysaw
Body saws are a sick, twisted version of a plank.
This is an advanced exercise, so if you’re new to training your core I suggest you start with one of the earlier exercises on this list.
That said, if you can do it, it’s an awesome exercise. Ensure that your core is braced and you are in control of the movement the whole time.
9. Hanging Leg-Raise
To do hanging leg-raises you’ll need something to hold on to.
A playground would be an ideal place to do them as part of a workout including some other exercises that require a bar, but if you can’t find one, don’t sweat it. Do some of the other exercises on this list and save the hanging leg-raises until next time.
They’re a relatively simple looking exercise, but believe me; they’re tough.
If you’re struggling, start by bending your leg and raising your knees to your chest instead.
Notice in the video below that she is controlling the motion throughout the set (not swinging). That’s the key to getting this exercise right.
10. Ab Wheel Rollout or Suspension Trainer Fallout
Ab wheel rollouts are thought to be the most effective core exercise in existence.
But as the name suggests, you need an ab wheel to perform them. If you don’t have one, the next best thing is a suspension trainer (such as TRX).
Using a suspension trainer, you can perform fallouts, which challenge your core in much the same way as the ab wheel.
One added benefit of using a suspension trainer is that it is easy to adjust the difficulty of the exercise. If you stand close to upright it will be fairly easy, but if you lengthen the straps and lower yourself closer to the ground it will be much tougher.
Here’s a video demonstration by Jen Ferruggia:
11. Bonus Best Core Exercise: Chin-Ups
In his spare time, Bret Contreras carries out EMG experiments.
These experiments measure the electrical activity of muscle during exercise, which allows him to figure out what the most effective exercises are for a given muscle group.
Surprisingly, when he was testing exercises for the abs, the chin-up came out as one of the most effective exercises.
However, for the chin-up to be an effective exercise for your abs (and to make it safer in general) you must focus on keeping your body in a straight line.
This means you shouldn’t be lifting your legs, swinging, or arching your lower back.
Here’s how it should (and shouldn’t) look:
What is the best core workout?
The best bodyweight core workout would not only involve several of these exercises, but it would also help you burn as much fat as possible.
After all, you won’t able to see those rock-solid abs if they are covered by a layer of fat.
To make life as simple as possible for you, we’ve created a free bodyweight core workout that does exactly that — helps you melt fat while strengthening your core using 3 of our favorite exercises from this list.
It only takes 15 minutes.
To get the FREE core workout, click here: