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It’s easy to envy fitness models with washboard abs, and then feel defeated because you’re unable to achieve this aesthetic yourself. Unfortunately, this leads many of us to have body insecurities, or hyper-focus on one area of the body (like our abs) in our workouts at the expense of a more well-rounded, effective exercise program. The good news is that you can tear the pictures of bikini-clad models off your vision board and stop doing endless crunches that seem to be getting you nowhere. You don’t need to have six-pack abs to be healthy, fit, and strong, and you don’t need to have a chiseled stomach to feel confident in your skin and love your body.
So, what do you need to do? First and foremost, we have to shift the mindset from an abs-only endeavor to one that focuses on the whole core. The core includes all the muscles that wrap around the trunk and pelvis, including the abdominal muscles, back muscles, hip stabilizers, glutes, diaphragm, and pelvic floor muscles. We tend to neglect some of these smaller players when we are obsessed with achieving a certain physical appearance, but for optimal health and function, strengthening the whole core is critical. After all, the core is the link between the upper body and lower body, so a strong core helps you move more efficiently and it improves balance and posture.
You’ll love the feeling of stability and power you’ll start to feel in your body after zooming out from only targeting your abs to a more global approach of working your whole core. And, you can augment your fit-body progress by drinking plenty of water, eating a high-fiber diet with lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, and avoiding highly processed foods and excessive alcohol.
Ready to show your entire core some love? With the help of a body-positive fitness expert and the Tone It Up girls, we’ve compiled 16 of the best exercises for sculpting and strengthening your core.
Meet the Expert
Kelsey Ellis is a certified personal trainer, holistic health & fitness coach, and the owner of Healthy With Kelsey.
In this exercise, you'll not only work your abdominals but you'll strengthen the stabilizing muscles that lie deeper in the core, such as the transversus abdominis, which promotes proper posture, breathing mechanics, and spinal stability. “This is one of my favorite core exercises because it is so versatile for all fitness levels,” explains Ellis.
Here’s how to do it:
- Lie on your back with your knees bent, your feet raised so that your shins are parallel to the floor, and your arms straight up into the air, perpendicular to the ground.
- From this starting position, straighten and lower one leg until your foot hovers just above the ground, while you simultaneously bring the opposite arm straight down behind your head toward the floor without touching it.
- Raise the leg and arm back to the starting position and repeat with the opposite leg and arm.
- Alternate sides with each rep.
- Complete 15 reps per side.
You can modify this exercise by keeping your knees bent or make it harder by straightening your legs or adding ankle and hand weights.
Front Bridge (Plank)
While the front bridge will certainly get your abs quivering, it also works your glutes, entire back, shoulders, chest, and deep core stabilizers. According to Ellis, “This isometric exercise will strengthen up your abdominals, but also teaches you patience by working time under tension. A strong core doesn’t happen overnight!”
Here’s how to perform this move:
- Lie face down on the floor with your legs straight and arms tucked in by your sides with your shoulders stacked over your elbows.
- Raise your body off the floor, resting on your toes and forearms, and hold this position.
- Do not arch your back or lift your hips; your whole body should be a straight line from the top of your head to your feet.
- Hold the position for 20-30 seconds, then lower yourself back to the floor.
Rotational Side Bridge
This exercise targets your obliques, hip stabilizers, glutes, and abs. “This exercise is great for people with tight hips," shares Ellis. "The pelvic rotation in this exercise will challenge you to balance while maintaining your form.”
Here’s how to do it:
- Lie on one side with your elbow stacked under your shoulder and your feet stacked on top of one another.
- Lift your hips off the ground and extend your top arm straight up towards the ceiling.
- Slowly rotate your pelvis towards the floor while reaching your extended arm underneath your body to tap the back of your opposite shoulder.
- While maintaining your balance, rotate back to the starting position.
- Complete 15 reps on each side.
The boat pose not only hits all your abdominal muscles, but you’ll also strengthen your hip flexors, quads, and spinal stabilizers. It will challenge your ability to stabilize your entire trunk and core while you build muscular endurance, strength, and balance. “This yoga move works more than just your core,” explains Ellis. “It is a full-body exercise [because you are] required to squeeze your arms and inner thighs while maintaining an elongated spine.”
Here is how to do the boat pose:
- Sit on the floor with your knees bent, resting on your tail bone.
- Extend your arms in front of your body.
- Gently lean back and lift your feet off of the ground, holding your body in a "V" position, ensuring your core is tight so that you do not round your back.
- Hold for 20-30 seconds.
Side Plank Oblique Crunch
This variation of the side plank will strengthen core muscles, such as the obliques, hip stabilizers, and abdominals, while also working your shoulders and chest, helping you develop spinal stability and functional movement patterns. Ellis adds that this exercise also "engages your glutes, which are often under-targeted in core workouts, but they are the key to maintain your balance in this move.”
To perform this move, follow these steps:
- Lie on one side with your elbow stacked under your shoulder and your hips and feet stacked.
- Keeping your body straight, lift your hips and extend your arm over your head and lift your top leg.
- Bring your extended arm down and tuck your top leg in to tap the elbow and knee together.
- Extend them both back out and repeat.
- Complete 12-15 reps per side.
While you'll strengthen all your abs with this exercise, it will especially get your obliques working, which Ellis says, "is great for improving core stabilization in unilateral movements.”
Here's how to perform this move:
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
- Place your hands at your sides and, using your abdominals, lift your head and shoulders off of the floor, bringing your chin to your chest.
- Reach your right hand down to tap your right ankle, squeezing your right obliques.
- Return to the starting position, and then reach your left hand down to tap your left ankle, squeezing the left obliques.
- Keep your lower back firmly on the floor throughout the exercise and continue alternating sides.
- Complete 15 reps on each side.
This core exercise primarily targets your backside, including your spinal stabilizers, glutes, and hamstrings. You’ll also engage your abs, hip flexors, shoulders, and even your quads. As you get stronger, you can increase the intensity by holding a weight, such as a medicine ball or dumbbell.
Here are the steps to perform this move:
- Lie on your back with your legs fully extended and your arms reaching overhead flat on the floor.
- Squeezing your abdominals, lift your head, shoulders, and arms off the ground, while simultaneously drawing your knees in towards your chest in a tuck position. Your hands should come forward in an arc towards your feet.
- In a controlled manner, return to the starting position.
- Complete 15 reps.
This core exercise primarily targets the backside of your body, including your spinal stabilizers, glutes, and hamstrings. You’ll also engage your abs, hip flexors, shoulders, and even your quads. "This exercise is excellent for lengthening the spine to help improve posture, as it goes against our natural inclination to slump into a rounded back," explains Ellis.
Here's how to do it:
- Kneel on all fours, with a flat back, so that your wrists are stacked under your shoulders and knees are under your hips (table-top position).
- Lift and extend your opposite arm and leg at the same time, maintaining balance and keeping them at an even height.
- Lower them back to the ground, and then repeat on the opposite side.
- Alternate sides, completing 30 repetitions total.
Standing Elbow to Knee Crunch
This is a great exercise for your obliques, hip flexors, and glutes. It’s also an easy move to sneak in during your regular day—try it while brushing your teeth, waiting in line, or talking on the phone.
Here’s how to do it:
- Stand with your arms bent in front of your chest and your hands together.
- Bend one leg toward your chest while bringing the opposite elbow to your knee.
- Alternate sides.
- Complete 21 reps on each side.
Bear Hold Shoulder Taps
While challenging the core, this exercise also strengthens your shoulders and legs, helping develop stability and coordinated strength between your upper and lower body. According to Ellis, "This full-body move will leave not only your core but also your arms and legs, on fire!"
Here's how to feel the burn yourself:
- Kneel on all fours in tabletop position.
- Push through your hands to hover your knees just above the ground.
- Engage your core to maintain this position while bringing your right hand to your left shoulder.
- Lower your right hand back to the starting position, and then repeat with the left hand.
- Alternate sides, ensuring your back stays flat and neutral like a tabletop.
- Complete 12 reps per side.
Many core routines include this exercise. And, with good reason: it’s an effective little move for abs, obliques, lower back, and hip flexors. Be sure to keep your back straight.
To perform the move:
- Hold one dumbbell with both hands in front of your chest and sit back into a “V” position (Boat pose) with your knees bent and core engaged.
- Twist your upper body and the dumbbell to one side, squeezing your obliques and abs.
- Twist to the other side.
- Repeat for 21 reps on each side.
Try performing a drop set to challenge your body. Start with a set of heavier weights for the first seven reps, then lower down to medium weights for the next seven, and complete the last seven with lighter weights.
Deadlifts are a foundational movement and mainstay on many strength training programs for a reason. They strengthen and tone your glutes, hamstrings, spinal stabilizers, and lower abs.
Here’s how to do them:
- Stand with your legs hip-width apart with a slight bend in your knees, holding dumbbells in front of your hips.
- Slowly hinge forward at the hips as you engage your lower abs and lower the dumbbells down toward the ground, tracking the weights along your shins. Make sure to maintain a neutral spine and a slight bend in your knees.
- Squeeze your glutes to raise your body back up to the starting position.
- Complete 21 reps: the first seven with a heavy weight, then seven with a medium weight, and the last seven with a lighter weight.
Kneeling Stability Ball Roll Out
Ellis says this exercise calls upon the entire core. "I like to use this exercise to help clients identify their core muscles, as you can really feel them engage during this move," explains Ellis. "You will definitely know that you did them right the next day if it’s hard to laugh!"
Here's how to try it:
- Kneel on the floor with your hands resting low on a stability ball in front of you.
- Push the ball forward, rolling it along your forearms, as you lift your hips into a plank position on your toes.
- Engage your glutes and abdominals to pull the ball back inward to the starting position.
- Complete 12 reps.
Stability Ball Knee Tuck
You’ll not only strengthen muscles such as your abs, glutes, upper back, shoulders, and hip flexors with this exercise but you’ll also develop core stability and balance. “This exercise is great for the mind-body connection, as it requires you to move intentionally—moving too quickly will send you out of balance,” says Ellis. “As with most core exercise, move slowly and with focus.”
Here's how to do it:
- Start in a push-up position with your arms extended and about shoulder-width apart.
- Place one foot on top of the stability ball and the other on the floor for balance.
- Lift the leg that’s on the floor up onto the ball so that both shins are on the ball behind your straight body.
- Engage your glutes, hip flexors, and abdominals to pull your knees towards your chest, rolling the ball forward towards your hands. The top of your shoes where the laces are will be on the ball.
- Untuck your legs and straighten them back out to the starting position.
- Complete 15 reps.
Stability Ball Crunch
Like a standard crunch, this move targets your abs. But, because you’re able to add extension backward on the ball, this variation is more difficult than when it’s performed on the floor. You move through a greater range of motion and have to engage your entire core to stabilize your body on the ball.
Here are the steps:
- Lie on the ball so your back is supported, but your head is off the ball.
- Bend your knees in front of you with feet hip-width apart for support.
- Place your hands behind your head and slowly crunch up, engaging your core to avoid pulling your neck forward.
- Slowly lower back down.
- Complete 25 reps.
Stability Ball Hand-to-Foot Pass
You’ll target and tone your abs, inner thighs, hip flexors, and pelvic floor muscles with this exercise, while improving shoulder mobility and spinal stability. ”With this move, you get the added benefit of contracting your inner thighs as you squeeze the ball, which is excellent for engagement of the abdominal muscles and pelvic floor,” Ellis says.
Here’s how to do it:
- Lie on your back in a fully extended position, arms overhead, with a stability ball, squeezed between both feet.
- With the ball between your feet, raise your feet and arms toward the ceiling.
- Take the ball in your hands, and then lower both your arms and legs to the ground to the starting position.
- Repeat, exchanging the ball back and forth between your feet and hands.
- Complete 10 reps.