With thousands of different options, finding the best core exercises can be a challenge.
But we have got you sorted.
By Coach Hunter Bennett
What do we mean by “the best core exercises”?
The word “best” is heavily dictated by context.
Often the best exercise for one person may be ineffective for another.
However, that doesn’t mean that good exercises for most people don’t exist.
Which is the direction I intend to take this article.
These exercises are ones we have found to benefit pretty much everyone who comes through our doors.
In this manner, we consider them the best core exercises because they:
- Offer huge bang-for-your buck
- Work well for pretty much everyone
- Can easily be made harder or easier, depending on fitness level
But first, lets hit on some background information.
What does your core do?
The muscles of your trunk (i.e., your abdominals, or “the core”) have two main functions.
Firstly, they help stabilise the spine.
This keeps your spine neutral under heavy loads, which may reduce injury risk. Moreover, it also helps improve force transfer through the lower and upper limbs.
Secondly, they produce movement.
Your spine can flex forward and sideways, extend backwards, and rotate – all movements that occur thanks to your abdominals.
With this in mind, the best core exercises need to target both functions.
The best core exercises for stability
When it comes to maximising core stability, you want exercises that resist movement in different planes.
Which is why our top three core stability exercises are:
- The RKC plank
- The Pallof Press
- The Deadbug
And here is how to do them.
The RKC Plank
The RKC plank forces more core engagement than a traditional plank. It also teaches you how to actively stabilize your trunk, while recruiting the glutes for good measure.
A couple of key points:
- Start with your elbows slightly forward of your shoulders
- Lift your hips slightly higher than a normal plank
- Squeeze your glutes as hard as you can to tilt your pelvis back
- Actively contract your abs
We like 3 sets of 15-30 seconds here.
As soon as these boxes are ticked, you can start the timer and feel the burn.
The Pallof Press
The pallof press is one of the best ways to train your core to resist rotation.
It is also easy to implement and can be made harder/easier by changing tension on the band, or the load on the cable stack.
Key points here:
- Feet slightly wider than shoulders
- Drive your arms out to full extension
- Keep your ribs down
These can be performed for time (2-3 sets of 20-30 seconds), or for reps (3 sets of 10-12 reps).
The deadbug is a great core stability exercises that resists both extension and rotation. Importantly, it also teaches you how to stabilise the spine while producing upper and lower limb movement.
This makes it great for enhancing force transfer.
We typically like 3 sets of 12-15 per side.
As a bonus, you can easily make it harder by adding in band resistance. And you can make it easier by just moving your arms or your legs (rather than both).
The best core exercises for movement strength
Now that we have identified our best core stability exercises, we want to focus on some exercises that train movement.
And here are our top three:
- Reverse Crunches
- Oblique Crunches
- Hanging Leg Raise
- Russian Twist
And here is why we like them.
The Reverse Crunch
As its name suggests, this exercise is like a backwards crunch, where you move your legs rather than your torso.
This teaches the abdominals to control movement against load. This is great for general strength, and also help maintain position during squats and deadlifts.
- Make sure your lower back leaves the floor
- Keep the ascent controlled
- Slow down the descent
We like 2-3 sets of 8-12 slow and controlled reps here.
Oblique crunches are a variation of the traditional crunch that target trunk rotation. While the range of movement here is small, they improve your ability to rotate through the thoracic spine.
A few key points:
- Avoiding starting the movement by pulling your head forward
- Focus on squeezing through your abdominals
- Push both feet into the ground
2-3 sets of 12-15 reps per side is more than enough here.
Hanging Leg raise
You can think of the hanging leg raise as a progression on the reverse crunch.
They not only trains the abdominals to produce movement, but also control it on the way down.
Some tips on technique:
- Try and get your feet higher than your hips
- Actively drive your ribs down as your legs come up
- Pause slightly at the top
- Control the descent
2-3 sets of 6-10 reps are great here.
Last up we have the Russian twist.
There is a reason that this exercise is a staple in most core training routines. Because it offers a great way to strengthen rotation.
If you perform it correctly, that is.
Some points on how to get the most out of your Russian twists:
- Most of the rotation should come through your upper back (i.e., thoracic spine)
- The touch on the ground should be soft and controlled
- Leg movement should be minimal
2-3 sets of 12-15 reps per side is ideal here.
But aren’t crunches bad for your back?
We have a whole article answering the question “are crunches bad for your back” – so I would suggest you read that for a deep dive.
But in short, no, they are not.
While some research suggests that your spine can only handle certain number of ‘crunches’ before it gets injured, there is a big caveat.
This research was performed on the spines of dead pigs.
This is an issue when we consider that living human tissue can adapt to load. This means it can become stronger and more resilient.
And this includes the connective tissue found within your spine.
Which suggest that when performed appropriately, crunches might have a positive effect on your back…
The best core exercises: the final word
And there you have it – what we believe to the best core exercises.
As already stated, these are what we consider the most “bang-for-your-buck” core exercises.
They work well, and they work for most people.
If you want to give them a go, simply do one or two at the end of your gym sessions and see what you think.
Trust us when we say you won’t be disappointed.