The “core” refers to the main muscles in the trunk of the body. They help protect the spine, provide stability, and increase strength.

The best core exercises can increase physical performance, help avoid injury, and improve posture by improving the core muscles.

If a person incorporates a focus on these muscles with a balanced diet and lifestyle that involves other types of exercise, maintaining a solid, well-trained core will also help build an athletic-looking physique.

For beginners and those with more experience, this article looks at the benefits of core preparation and the most successful workouts.

Which muscles make up the core?

fit young women balancing in vasisthaasana pose during yoga class
Photo by Lena Shekhovtsova on Pexels.com

The core muscles, found in the trunk of the body, are:

Rectus abdominis:  Which makes the body lean over, also known as the’ six pack.’
Internal and external obliques: These muscles help the trunk twist and bend to the sides, positioned at the sides of the heart.
Transversus abdominis: During movement, this helps support the pelvis.
Lumbar multifidus: This muscle in the back serves to protect the spine during motion.
Erector spinae:  This muscle and tendon group acts after bending to straighten the trunk and stabilise the body during raising.

Benefits of core training

According to Harvard Medical School, strengthening the core muscles can help:

  • improve balance, stability, and flexibility
  • prevent falls and injuries
  • reduce back pain
  • improve posture

Exercises that strengthen the core

Having a routine that includes some of the following exercises may help strengthen and stabilise the core and improve mobility.

Before going on to others that increase agility, such as mountain climbers, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) advises beginning with workouts to help develop core flexibility.

Below, beginning with those for beginners, we list ACE-approved core exercises. We also give tips to make these activities more complicated.

1. The bridge

This also helps strengthen muscles in the lower back, hips, and buttocks. The muscles of the buttocks are called the gluteal muscles, or “glutes.”

To perform the bridge:

  • Lie on a mat, with the knees bent and the feet hip-width apart, firmly planted on the floor. The hands should be palm-down at the sides.
  • Squeeze the glutes and lift the hips until there is a straight diagonal line from the knees to the shoulders.
  • Hold this position for 20–30 seconds before slowly lowering the body to the floor. Do this one vertebra at a time, starting at the shoulders and ending at the pelvis.

Intermediate: While lifting the hips, raise the right foot off the floor until the knee is at a 90-degree angle from the hip. Alternate legs for 20 repetitions.

Advanced: Use a resistance band around the hips, securing the band to the floor with your hands. This will make the muscles work harder.

2. Toe taps

These help engage the core muscles while strengthening the glutes, hips, and legs.

To perform toe taps:

  • Lie on the floor, with the feet raised and the knees bent at 90 degrees. Place the hands at the sides of the body with the palms facing down.
  • Lower each foot in turn, lightly tapping the floor, before raising it to the starting position.
  • While doing this, it may help imagine a thread pulling the belly button down into the floor. The aim is to keep the spine stable and prevent the lower back from arching.
  • Perform 2 sets of 8 or 3 sets of 12, depending on the level of fitness.

3. The high plank

This strengthens the abdominal muscles, shoulders, back, glutes, and legs.

To perform the high plank:

  • Start off on all fours, with the hands shoulder-width apart and the feet hip-width apart.
  • Extend the legs behind the body, until the body’s weight rests on the hands and the balls of the feet.
  • Pull in the belly button to keep the core muscles active.
  • Hold this position for 20 seconds while breathing deeply and looking directly at the floor, then return to the starting position.
  • Perform 8 repetitions per set for 2 sets.

Intermediate (elbow plank): Instead of resting the weight on the hands, lower the forearms to the floor so that the arms form a right angle to the floor. Move the feet closer to the body. Hold the position for 30 seconds. Repeat 3 sets of 12.

Advanced (side plank): Lie on one side, with the elbow directly beneath the shoulder and the forearm flat against the floor. The legs should be slightly bent.

Using the oblique muscles, lift the hips to form a straight line, with one leg balanced atop the other. Raise the free arm straight up in the air, holding the position for as long as possible without losing balance — at least 30 seconds. Repeat 3 sets of 12.

4. Bird dog

This exercise strengthens the abdominal and back muscles by challenging stability.

To perform the bird dog:

  • Begin on all fours, with the hands shoulder-width apart and the knees hip-width apart.
  • Tighten the core and extend the right leg behind the body until it is level with the hip.
  • Extend the left arm forward until it is level with the shoulder, keeping the thumb facing upward.
  • Hold this position for 20 seconds.
  • Perform 2 sets of 8 repetitions, alternating with the left leg and right arm.

Intermediate: Once in position, with the right leg and left arm extended, draw these limbs in beneath the abdomen until they are as close to each other as possible. Then extend them to the starting position. Hold this for 30 seconds. Perform 12 repetitions per set for up to 3 sets.

Advanced: Use a resistance band around the feet to work the glutes harder.

5. Abdominal crunches

These help strengthen the core, lower back muscles, and obliques.

To perform abdominal crunches:

  • Lie face-up on a mat, and bend the knees until the feet are roughly 12–18 inches from the tailbone.
  • Place the hands behind the head, and exhale while slowly curling the torso toward the thighs. Continue until the upper back lifts from the floor.
  • Hold this position for a few seconds.
  • Lower the torso slowly to the floor.
  • Beginners should aim for 2 sets of 8 repetitions. Others should aim for 3 sets of 12.

Intermediate: Begin in the same position, but instead of keeping the feet flat on the floor, raise them toward the chest while curling the torso toward the thighs.

Advanced: Hold a weighted medicine ball to the chest while curling the torso upward. Swivel left and right, bringing the ball across the body, before returning to the starting position.

6. Bicycle crunches

This is one of the most effective intermediate exercises for strengthening the rectus abdominis, also known as the six-pack.

To perform bicycle crunches:

  • Lie on a mat with the knees bent and the hands behind the head.
  • Lift both feet.
  • Bring the right knee toward the chest while straightening the left leg.
  • At the same time, lift the shoulders and upper back, bringing the left elbow toward the right knee. Try to touch the elbow to the knee and hold this position for a few seconds before returning to the starting position.
  • Repeat, this time bringing the right elbow toward the left knee.
  • Repeat as often as the fitness level allows.

7. Warrior crunches

These work the abdominal muscles, glutes, thighs, and quads.

To perform warrior crunches:

  • Stand with the feet slightly farther than hip-width apart and the toes pointed outward.
  • Place the hands behind the head and squat as far as is comfortable.
  • Bend the upper body to one side, and return to the center.
  • Repeat on the opposite side. Try not to lean forward or backward while bending. It may help to imagine the body between two panes of glass.
  • Aim for 2 sets of 8 repetitions or 3 sets of 12 repetitions, depending on fitness levels.

8. Mountain climbers

This exercise strengthens the abdominal muscles as well as the shoulders, hips, hamstrings, and triceps.

To perform mountain climbers:

  • Start in a high plank position.
  • Keeping the abdominal muscles tight, bring the right knee to the chest.
  • Return the right leg to the starting position. Bring the left knee to the chest.
  • Start slowly, working up to a faster rhythm. The aim is to alternate legs in one fluid movement.
  • Begin with 2 sets of 8, working up to 3 sets of 12.

Summary

The core muscles help protect the spine, stabilise the body, improve posture and balance, and increase strength.

Working these muscles through resistance-based exercise can also help improve mobility.

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