The 8 Best Core Exercises You Should Be Doing

Abs aren't just for show. Here are the best core exercises for a stronger, more stable core.

Expert Verified By: Jake Dickson, CPT-NASM, USAW-L2

Obtaining a ripped six-pack requires a combination of hard training, a dialed-in diet, and, to some degree, good genetics. If someone is ripped, it almost always means that they’ve put in some sweat equity to get there. What a six-pack is not a sign of, however, is strength. Looking great is one thing, but nobody wants to fold like a deck chair under a loaded barbell

Luckily, you don’t have to choose between being all show or all go — both are possible. To get there, you need to focus on performing functional and effective exercises that target your entire core, and not just your six-pack muscles (more on that below). 

Abs of a person in a black sports bra.
Credit: Dean Drobot / Shutterstock

To help you sieve through all the exercises available, we provide eight of the best core exercises, as well as an overview of your core’s anatomy and the benefits of core training

8 Best Core Exercises

  1. Ab Rollout
  2. Dead Bug Pullover
  3. Suitcase Carry
  4. Pallof Press
  5. Overhead Carry
  6. Mixed-Grip Pull-Up
  7. RKC Plank
  8. Hollow Hold

Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.

1. Ab Rollout

The ab rollout has you grip either a barbell loaded with round plates, an ab wheel, or an exercise ball and then extend your torso towards the ground. The ab rollout strengthens the core by lengthening it, which targets your eccentric strength. That is your muscle’s ability to be strong in a stretched position. Getting stronger in an extended position improves core stability and recruits muscle fibers that would otherwise be untouched.  

Moreover, the ab rollout helps you strengthen your core in its lengthened position. You can also expect increased muscle development, plus more core control and greater overall stability.

How to Do It

  1. Get on your knees and grip your equipment of choice with hands shoulder-width apart (unless you’re using an ab wheel).
  2. Extend your hips towards the floor and let your chest sink forward toward the ground without overarching your lower back.
  3. The larger a range of motion, the harder the exercise, so shorten your ROM if you’re new to the exercise. Squeeze the lat muscles and pull yourself back to the starting position.

Coach’s Tip: If possible, utilize a mirror to assess the posture of your spine while you roll out.

Sets and Reps: Work up to 3 sets of 10 rollouts. 

2. Dead Bug Pullover 

Pairing the dead bug — a move that creates core instability by having you simultaneously reach your opposite-side arm and leg — with a kettlebell makes for one heck of a core-builder. The offset nature of the kettlebell combined with the standard dead bug movement places extra demand on your core, shoulders, and lats. 

[Read More: Do These Posture Exercises to Reduce Back Pain]

The dead bug pullover will improve your lumbopelvic stability (as in, your ability to stabilize your lower back), and reinforces proper pullover technique. You can also use it to prevent misalignment in your spine and maintain good posture.

How to Do It

  1. Lay on your back holding a kettlebell by the horns over your chest with arms extended.
  2. Lift your legs off of the ground and bend them at 90 degrees.
  3. Press your low back into the ground, take a deep breath in before you initiate the movement, and then exhale while simultaneously extending one leg and lowering the kettlebell until it gently touches the floor.
  4. Reverse the movement and then repeat with the other leg. 

Coach’s Tip: If you’re limited in shoulder mobility, hold a long object like a dowel or PVC pipe instead of a kettlebell.

Sets and Reps: Do 2 to 3 rounds of up to 15 repetitions. 

3. Suitcase Carry

The suitcase carry has all benefits of farmer’s carries but this version will strengthen grip imbalances between hands. These imbalances can be a limiting factor when pulling heavy from the floor or pulling your opponent to the ground (if you do Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or wrestling, that is). Also, you’ll notice that holding even a light load in one hand is extremely challenging.

The lopsided load of the suitcase carry will encourage your core to develop anti-rotational strength. This will improve your posture and balance, while holding the weight will strengthen your grip.

How to Do It

  1. Start with a weight that’s between about 25 percent of your body weight.
  2. Pick up the weight, crush the handle, and make sure you’re not tilting to one side or the other. A mirror can be helpful here.
  3. Walk slowly in a straight line, putting one foot in front of the other while swinging the opposite arm. Swap hands and repeat on the other side.

Coach’s Tip: Placing your non-working arm on your hip can help remind you to keep your pelvis and ribcage squared. 

Sets and Reps: Walk for 2 to 4 rounds of up to 20 paces as fast as possible. 

4. Pallof Press 

The Pallof Press, named after Physical Therapist Joseph Pallof, has become one of the go-to exercises for strengthening one’s anti-rotation ability. By holding a band in front of you and preventing your body from twisting to one side, you’re actively training your core muscles to brace and stay tight. 

[Read More: 5 At-Home Workouts for Strength, Muscle Growth, Power, and More]

In the gym, this means you’ll brace better during lifts. In sports, you’ll be harder to move. The Pallof press is a great anti-rotation warm-up exercise to increase core activation, glute engagement, and core stability which is great for lifts like overhead presses, squats, and single-leg exercises.

How to Do It

  1. Loop a light band around a pole or power rack at chest level.
  2. Stand perpendicular to the band, grab it in both hands, and take a few steps sideways until the band is taut.
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, and then extend your arms forward. Do not let your torso or hips twist. 

Coach’s Tip: Utilize a mirror if necessary to ensure you’re keeping your torso and hips squared. 

Sets and Reps: Do 3 or 4 rounds of up to 10 presses per side. 

5. Overhead Carry

The overhead carry is performed with either a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, or a trap bar. No matter what variation you do, it’s one of the more difficult of all the carries because the weight is furthest away from your working muscles — the core. 

The overhead carry will improve overhead stability for movements such as overhead press, squats, and clean and jerks and improve posture and gait. You can also expect some hypertrophy in your upper back and shoulders due to the extended time under tension.

How to Do It

  1. To do a barbell overhead carry, start by cleaning and pressing the weight overhead. Or, you can start with the bar loaded in a power rack.
  2. Ensure that your hands are set shoulder-width apart.
  3. Your biceps should be by your ears and your wrists should be straight and neutral.
  4. Take small, slow, and deliberate steps while looking straight ahead. If you need to turn around please do so slowly.

Coach’s Tip: Fixate the bar directly above your upper back. Your arms should be in line with your ears, or slightly behind.

Sets and Reps: Walk for 3 rounds of 10 paces.

6. Mixed-Grip Pull-Up

Pull-ups and chin-ups are a great exercise to increase the size and strength of your biceps and back. You know this. However, a simple tweak can make this an equally effective core exercise. By doing pull-ups with one hand facing you and the other away you’ll add a rotational element, as the body will twist to one side more so than if you were using a standard grip. 

This extra rotation, and the work you’ll need to do to prevent it, means that the mixed-grip pull-up will better recruit your abs and stabilizing core muscles. Think of the mixed-grip pull-up as a way of improving your anti-rotational strength for more functional activities like golf, football, or baseball.

How to Do It

  1. Grab a pull-up bar with an alternating grip; one palm facing you and the other facing forward.
  2. Engage your core and grip tight to pull yourself up until your chest is even with the bar.
  3. Then, pause for a second and lower down slowly.
  4. Do all your repetitions with your hands in this position. Switch your grip for the next set.

Coach’s Tip: Consider using a lifting strap for your pronated hand if you have issues maintaining your grip.

Sets and Reps: Try 2 or 3 rounds of as many as 15 repetitions. 

7. RKC Plank

This is not your everyday front plank. Many trainers and strength coaches feel as though folks leave plenty of energy in the tank when doing a standard plank. Visually, the RKC plank looks the same, but a few small form tweaks create a swell of full-body tension. You’ll actively press your arms and hands into the floor, squeeze your quads, and actively pull your elbows and toes toward each other. 

You should only be able to hold this plank for just 10 to 20 seconds. However, the quantity may be going down but the quality is way up. This exercise fixes the main problem with planks, which is the lack of deep core activation over an extended period. It also forces you to work your entire core as a cohesive unit and strengthens the deep muscles that surround your spine.

How to Do It

  1. Start in the front plank position on your elbows, underneath your shoulders and clench your hands in a fist and pull your shoulders down and in.
  2. Then, squeeze your quads and glutes as hard as you can.
  3. Pull your shoulders towards your toes and toes towards your head.
  4. Take deep breaths in and out and use your breaths as reps. 

Coach’s Tip: The RKC plank should be uncomfortable. Actively tense every single muscle in your body.

Sets and Reps: Count your reps as full breath cycles, and work up to 3 sets of 5 reps.

8. Hollow Hold

The hollow hold is like an upside-down plank. You balance on your butt, with your legs and arms extended to lengthen your center of mass. Since your core is at your center, it will be working the hardest to keep you stable and upright. Once you feel comfortable in the hold position, you can begin to gently rock back and forth, which will create even more instability for your core to work against. 

Aside from being an effective exercise, this is a great move as it requires little space and no equipment. You just need to use your bodyweight. What’s more, the hollow hold carries over nicely to other types of functional training or strength sports.

How to Do It

  1. Lay on your back with arms extended overhead and legs pressed together.
  2. Lift your legs and upper torso off the floor. Hold this position.
  3. To perform the hollow rock, simply rock back and forth in this position, minimizing movement at the hip and shoulder joints.

Coach’s Tip: A good hollow brace carries over to many of your favorite compound exercises. 

Sets and Reps: Practice until you can hold for 4 or 5 rounds of 20 to 30 seconds. 

Core Warm-Up

Many of the best core exercises you can perform don’t necessarily require a robust warm-up, especially if they don’t have intricate techniques or involve external weights.

That said, you can always benefit by starting your core workouts with a solid general warm-up and, if desired, do a few breathing exercises to get in touch with your deep abdominal musculature:

  1. 5 to 10 minutes of low-intensity cardio.
  2. 2 to 3 rounds of dynamic hip and shoulder stretching if desired.
  3. 2 or 3 rounds of five slow, deep belly breaths.

How To Engage Your Core

To train your core properly, you need to know how to use it in the first place. Luckily, your core is pretty simple to activate once you understand your anatomy.

Think of your core as two vertical structures; your hips and your ribs. It is the role of your core musculature to “square” them by clamping your ribcage down and pulling your pelvis into a neutral position.

ab wheel rollout
Creadit: Olena Yakobchuk / Shutterstock

To replicate this posture, try this simple sequence:

  1. Lie on the floor on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the ground.
  2. Tuck your pelvis posteriorly by squeezing your glutes slightly.
  3. Exhale fully to let out all the air in your trunk. At the same time, think about compressing your ribcage.
  4. Your lower back should fall flush against the floor. Once your entire back is in contact with the ground, squeeze your abs.

How To Train Your Core

Most people begin their core training journey with some good old fashioned crunches or sit-ups. Those are fine movements, but there’s a wide world of core training out there — to make the gains you want, you need the right exercises in the right dosages. 

Core Exercise Selection

Your core is a robust and diverse collection of muscles that perform some of the most important roles in your entire body. As such, the exercises you select to strengthen your midsection should apply directly to your goals.

For example, if you need more core endurance to perform your job or carry out manual labor, you may want to prioritize isometric exercises like planks, side planks, or loaded carries.

However, if you want abs that really pop, you should emphasize flexion-extension movements like weighted crunches or ab rollouts (in addition to lowering your body fat through a calorie deficit). A well-designed, functional ab workout should house movements that challenge your midline in more than one way. 

Core Sets and Reps

You can program core work before your lifting sessions to prime your body. You can also superset standard exercises with any of the core moves above. Lastly, you can end your training with them. But in general, core training follows the same broad set-rep prescriptions as any other muscle group:

  • To Increase Strength: Perform loaded core movements for 3 to 5 sets of 5 to 10 reps.
  • To Build Muscle: Perform dynamic core exercises that flex and extend your abs for 8 to 12 repetitions in most cases.
  • To Gain Endurance: Perform isometric core exercises and aim to hold a static posture for time for up to a minute or more. 

Core Training Tips

Many go-to core exercises are simple in nature, but that doesn’t mean core training overall is. With so many muscles in play, you need to know how to maximize your core training to get the best results. Follow these training tips:

Prioritize Your Breathing

Your core contains many more muscles beyond the rectus abdominis that you can see in the mirror. Your deep abdominal wall, lumbopelvic complex, and groin are all lined by small — but essential — muscles.

Developing solid breathing patterns can help you turn these muscles on and get them in the game during your workouts. When you’re performing core exercises, focus on deep belly breaths and exhaling fully before recycling new air.

A tattooed athlete working out.
Credit: Prostock-studio / Shutterstock

You’d be surprised at how much air you store in your body, and letting it all out will have your body shaking with effort. 

Use Weight When Possible

Your core musculature supports you from sunrise to sunset from the moment you get up out of bed. However, the actual muscle tissue in your abs isn’t any different from anywhere else on your body.

Muscle hypertrophy and strength depends on progressive overload. Adding challenge to unweighted exercises is difficult as you get stronger. Eventually, to keep challenging you core, you’ll have to turn to external resistance to continue driving progress.

If you’re comfortably blasting through dozens of rollouts or holding planks for multiple minutes, it’s probably time to start adding a bit of extra weight to your core training. 

Benefits of Training Your Core

The core exercises above train the muscles in the pelvis, lower back, hips, and anterior core to work together. This leads to better balance, stability, and strength — whether on the playing field or doing yardwork.

Better Strength Performance

For the powerlifter or strength athlete who puts tremendous compressive and shearing forces on their spine, having a strong core helps keep the spine in neutral. Plus, a strong and stable core helps transfer power from the lower to upper body more efficiently.

Everyday Endurance

Having a stronger core with more endurance allows you to do more work with less discomfort. Because it sucks when pain stops you in your tracks.

Strengthening your core muscles will go a long way in helping to reducing or preventing low back pain and keeping you on the field for longer. Further, training your core stability and endurance with the right exercises is one piece of the puzzle in reducing low back pain. (1)

What Muscles Make Up the Core

Your core has multiple muscles and understanding what they are and how they function is important in obtaining a stronger and functional core. Here’s a breakdown of the major core muscles:

  • Rectus Abdominis: Runs vertically up the front of the torso and is responsible for spinal flexion and anti-extension.
  • Obliques: Consists of both the internal and external obliques and are located on the sides of the torso. Responsible for lateral flexion of the trunk and general torso stability.
  • Transverse Abdominis: A deep muscle that sits underneath your rectus abdominis and controls pelvic stability and abdominal pressure.
  • Hip Flexors: Play a key role in allowing you to perform compound hip-based exercises like squats or deadlifts. They sit at the front of your thigh and help you bend at the waist.
  • Spinal Erectors: Your lower back muscles help stabilize your torso and bear the brunt of most spinal loading, especially during hinge-based exercises.

[Read More: The 15 Best Upper Ab Exercises for a Stronger Core]

More Training Content

Now that you have a better handle on the best core exercises to strengthen your core, help crush PR’s, and help keep low back pain at bay check out these other helpful core training articles.



Featured Image: Olena Yakobchuk / Shutterstock