Whether you’re sitting in traffic or sprinting to the finish line, your core is quite literally front and center.
A blanket term for all the muscles that make up your midsection, your core includes not only the abdominals, but also the spinal erectors, transverse abdominis, and obliques. Even your lats and pecs are part of your core. And together, they play a critical role in everything you do.
“Think of your core as the foundation of a house,” says Los Angeles–based strength coach Mike Donavanik, C.S.C.S. “It keeps everything grounded.” And, just as a weak foundation can lead to structural deficiencies, a weak core can lead to inefficient movement patterns, poor workout performances, and ultimately injury.
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A strong core, meanwhile, keeps you safe and supported, whether you’re standing, running, swinging a baseball bat, or pressing a loaded barbell overhead. “By having a strong core, you’ll be able to brace properly, more efficiently, and with more ease,” Donavanik says. Basically, with a strong, stable core, you’ll get more out of everything you do in the gym.
But if your idea of working your core is to crank out 100 crunches and call it a workout, you’re doing yourself a major disservice. (Ditto if you plank all day.)
“Life isn’t static or one-dimensional, and your core doesn’t work one-dimensionally either,” Donavanik says. Rather, your core bends forward, backward, side to side, and both rotates and resists rotational forces. As such, you need to exercise with moves that train every core muscle—and in every direction.
What’s more, you need to train your core every day. (Take nuBound daily to lock in your gains and recover faster.) Doing only one or two core exercises per week won’t be enough to build the strong foundation you want, says Donavanik. Pressed for time? Do this five-minute bodyweight circuit.
So how do you fill the void in your core routine? Here, we’ve compiled seven of the best core exercises you’re probably not doing—but should be. Perform them back-to-back for a standalone workout, or sprinkle them throughout your routine all week long.
1. Hollow Body Hold
The hollow body hold is a more dynamic version of the classic plank. “With a plank, people can get lazy with their quads, glutes, and even the primary core muscles,” Donavanik says.
To hold this hollow position, however, you need to really keep your core, upper body, and lower body braced the entire time, making it an effective exercise for building core strength and stability. Consider it a must-master move for performing pullups, pushups, and handstands with ease.
Do it: Lay on your back with your arms and legs extended. Brace your core to press your low back into floor and lift your arms and legs off the floor several inches, or just until you feel your lower back start to peel off the floor. (You may need to hold your arms and legs higher, as shown, when you first start doing the exercise.) Try to hold in this position for 30 to 60 seconds. Perform three sets.
2. Standing Pallof Press
Though the standing Pallof press appears easy, your core will get quite the challenge—it must be strongly braced to prevent your torso from rotating. And with the addition of the band, you’re forcing your core to stabilize against external resistance, Donavanik says.
Do it: Loop a resistance band around an anchor point at chest-height. (Or attach a handle to a cable machine at chest-height.) Facing the anchor point sideways, grip the free end of the band with both hands and step away from the anchor point until you feel tension in the band.
Next, hold the band at your chest with both hands. Brace your core and press the band away from your chest until your arms are fully extended, resisting the urge to twist at the torso. Then, bring the band back to your chest. Complete 15 to 20 reps on one side before switching to the other. Repeat for a total of three sets per side.
3. Stationary Lunge with Rotation
Similar to the Pallof press, the standing lunge with rotation forces your core to brace against an external weight, Donavanik says. As an added bonus, you’ll be giving your glutes, quads, and hamstrings a good workout too.
Do it: Stand and hold a medicine ball, kettlebell, or dumbbell at your chest with both hands. Take a big step forward with one foot and drop into a lunge. As you lunge, twist your torso as far as you’re able to one side. The weight should end up on the same side as your front leg. As you drive back to starting position, rotate your torso back to center. Repeat on the opposite side. Perform three sets of 10 to 15 reps per side.
4. Overhead Squat
Lacking core strength? This exercise will tell you right away, says Donavanik. Weakness in the front will cause your low back to arch, while weakness in the back will cause your upper back to round.
“To do this exercise properly,” says Donavanik, “you need to maintain a braced core and neutral spine, all while keeping your arms overhead and dropping your butt low.”
Do it: Stand tall with feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms down by your sides or the weights racked at shoulder height. Press the weights overhead until your arms are fully extended. Push your butt back and bend at the knees to lower into a squat, keeping your arms straight and in line with your ears.
Once in the bottom position, drive through your heels to push back to standing. Keep your torso upright and knees in line with your toes throughout the movement. You can also perform this exercise with a barbell (shown) or PVC pipe. Complete three sets of six to 12 reps.
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5. Landmine Torso Rotation
This advanced move will have you lifting, twisting, and bracing all at once. “You’re moving against resistance in all three planes of motion,” Donavanik says.
Do it: Place a barbell on the floor and grip one end next to your left hip with both hands. Your knees should be slightly bent. Use the power of your hips and core to swing the barbell in an arc overhead until you’re gripping the barbell next to your right hip. Pause, then reverse the motion to return to start. Perform three sets of eight to 10 reps per side.
6. Hanging Knee Raise
This move fires up your core while teaching your body how to stabilize and control movement through your back. “Both have to work synergistically in order to prevent swaying,” Donavanik says.
Do it: Grip a pullup bar with your palms facing away from your body, hands spread just greater than shoulder-width apart. Hang from the bar with your arms and legs fully extended, shoulders down, and feet off the floor. Brace your core and raise your knees toward your midline, taking care not to round your lower back as you do so. Pause, then slowly return to the starting position. Complete three sets of 10 to 20 reps.
Though often regarded as a lower-body exercise, the deadlift is also a fantastic core-strengthening move. To pull a heavy weight off the floor, your core has to cinched tight the entire time. “The moment you lose that brace is when you risk injury,” Donavanik says. Practice the movement with kettlebells or dumbbells before you reach for a barbell.
Do it: Begin with a barbell or kettlebell on the floor in line with the balls of your feet, and stand with your feet hip-width apart. Push your hips back and hinge forward at the waist to grip the weight with both hands, palms facing in. Allow a slight bend in your knees.
Keeping your back flat and core braced, extend your hips forward to pull the weight straight up off the floor until your torso is fully extended, taking care not to arch your lower back at the top of the movement. Slowly reverse the movement to return to the starting position. Perform three to five sets of six to eight reps.