Best Core Exercises For Carved Abs, Stronger Lifts, and More

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

Obtaining a ripped six-pack requires a combination of hard traininga 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). 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. 

Best Core Exercises

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.  

Benefits of the Ab Rollout

  • More strength in a lengthened (or eccentric) position.
  • Increased muscle development. The exercise challenges you during both the lowering and lifting phase and recruits more overall muscle fibers as a result. 
  • More core control and stability. 

How to Do the Ab Rollout

Get on your knees and grip your equipment of choice with hands shoulder-width apart (unless you’re using an ab wheel). Extend your hips towards the floor and let your chest sink forward toward the ground without overarching your lower back. 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.

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. The pullover is a fantastic movement for the chest and lats, as well, but lifters can overextend their lower back in an effort for more range of motion or extra reps. This dead bug prevents this to help spare your spine any undue pain. 

Benefits of the Dead Bug Pullover

  • Improves lumbopelvic stability. That is, your body’s ability to stabilize your hip and lower back, which plays a role in overall core function.
  • Reinforces proper pullover technique. 
  • Prevents misalignment and encourages good posture.

How to Do the Dead Bug Pullover

Lay on your back holding a kettlebell by the horns over your chest with arms extended. Lift your legs off of the ground and bend them at 90 degrees. 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. Reverse the movement and then repeat with the other leg. 

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 pulls your torso to one side. That’s flexion. Your core will work to prevent this flexion (known as anti-flexion). Anti-flexion is essentially the same thing as when you brace during moves like the deadlift and squat. 

Benefits of the Suitcase Carry

  • Strengthens grip and shoulder stability imbalances between sides.
  • Suitcase carries throw your body off-balance, forcing your core muscles to engage to stay balanced. Stability, balance, and the ability to generate force from the core is hugely important for sports.

How to Do the Suitcase Carry

Start with a weight that’s between about 25 percent of your body weight. 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. 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.

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. It’s an iso hold for your abs. In the gym, this means you’ll brace better during lifts. In sports, you’ll be harder to move.  

 Benefits of the Pallof Press

  • It’s an extremely versatile exercise that is performed from a variety of positions to train your anti-rotation strength from all angles.
  • The Pallof press trains anti-rotation which is important for all lifts as it helps to increase core stability and resistance to spinal flexion, extension, and rotation.
  • It’s a great 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 the Pallof Press 

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

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.

Benefits of the Overhead Carry

  • Improves overhead stability, core stability, and balance.
  • Increased strength and hypertrophy for your upper back muscles and shoulders due to the time under tension from having weight overhead.

How to Do the Overhead Carry 

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. Ensure that your hands are set shoulder-width apart. Your biceps should be by your ears and your wrists should be straight and neutral. Take small, slow, and deliberate steps while looking straight ahead. If you need to turn around please do so slowly.

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. 

Benefits of the Mixed-Grip Pull-Up

  • Improves your ability to do more chin-ups and pull-ups. If you struggle at pull-ups, this is a great alternative
  • Improves anti-rotational strength which is important for sports like golf, football, and baseball

How to Do the Mixed-Grip Pull-Up

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

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.

Benefits of the RKC Plank

  • The entire core region works as a unit to create tension which improves your overall strength.
  • Strengthens the deep muscles that surround the spine (erectors) and core (transverse abdominals) which improves your ability to keep your spine neutral under load.
  • Using deep inhales and exhales while performing the RKC Plank improves your ability to breathe under stress. 

How to Do the RKC Plank

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. Then squeeze your quads and glutes as hard as you can. Then pull your shoulders towards your toes and toes towards your head. Take deep breaths in and out and use your breaths as reps. Aim for five deep breaths to start.

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

Benefits of the Hollow Hold

  • You’ll build a more stable base which will carry over to your lifts and athletic performances. 
  • The isometric nature of the move creates a stronger ability to brace. Strength athletes especially will benefit from hollow holds.

How to Do the Hollow Hold

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

Why Core Strength Matters

The core’s most important function is resisting movement while you’re moving. Think anti-extension, anti-rotation, and anti-flexion. This helps protect your spine from unnecessary stress. When squatting or deadlifting, keeping your spine neutral and body in good alignment is important for good technique,  preventing injury, and lifting heavy weight more efficiently. 

A stronger core makes this all happen. Your core is essentially a bridge between your lower and upper body. When the bridge cannot stand the weight on it, it begins to break, and bad things start to happen. It doesn’t matter how strong your legs or upper body is. You’re only as strong as your weakest link.

Plus, with a lot of the population sitting and hunched over, this wreaks havoc on your posture and lower back pain. Training your core stability and endurance with these exercises above is one piece of the puzzle in reducing low back pain. (1)

Anatomy Of 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

The rectus abdominis is what most people know as the abs. It runs vertically up the front of the torso and is responsible for spinal flexion and anti-extension (like sit-ups and planks.). This muscle is often targeted when people train their core and can be very resilient to fatigue because it’s a slow-twitch muscle fiber dominant area.   

Obliques

The obliques are actually two muscles: internal and external obliques. They’re located beside the rectus abdominis running from the hips to the rib cage. The internal obliques are located directly under the external obliques, and the muscle fibers travel perpendicular to each other. They’re responsible for the rotation of the torso and anti-rotation.

Transverse Abdominals

The transversus abdominis plays a vital role in maintaining abdominal tension which helps increase intraabdominal pressure which protects your spine under heavy loads. It sits under your rectus abdominis and wraps around your spine.

Hip Flexors

Your hip flexor’s mobility plays a key role in allowing you to squat and deadlift because they’re needed for full hip extension. Strong and mobile hip flexors allow you to run, jump, and squat deep. They run from your anterior pelvis to your thigh bone femur and play an important role in keeping your pelvis aligned.

Spinal Erectors  

The spinal erector muscles lie on each side of the vertebral column and extend right alongside the lumbar, thoracic, and cervical sections of the spine. Erector muscles straighten the back and assists side-to-side rotation. These muscles also play a vital role in keeping a neutral spine when under compressive and shearing forces.

Adductors

The adductors connect to your core on the underside of the bones of the pelvis and run down in the inside of the femur. Because of this strong and mobile adductors will improve your core strength. The adductors help to stabilize your pelvis and help reduce lower back pain.

The 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. 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.

ab wheel rollout
Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

Also, 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.

Programming Suggestions, 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. If you’re training core before weights, do one to two sets. When pairing with a strength exercise or training after weights, do two to three sets. In terms of reps, it depends on the exercise.

With carries, it is best to measure in distance like 40-100 yards, or you can perform carries for a set time. That said, it’s logistically hard to time yourself if you’re training alone and don’t have a wall-mounted stopwatch.  For the RKC plank, you can use breathes instead of time as this increases the intensity. The ab rollout, pullover dead bug, mixed-grip pull-up, and Pallof press are all best performed for reps. Aim for anywhere from six to 12.

More Core Training Tips

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.

References

  1. Abdelraouf OR, Abdel-Aziem AA. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CORE ENDURANCE AND BACK DYSFUNCTION IN COLLEGIATE MALE ATHLETES WITH AND WITHOUT NONSPECIFIC LOW BACK PAIN. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2016 Jun;11(3):337-44. PMID: 27274419; PMCID: PMC4886801.

Featured image: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock