Man or woman, young or old, everybody wants a flat stomach with washboard abs.
So, it’s no surprise that I’m often asked “what are the best core exercises?”
For most people, the first exercises that come to mind are sit-ups and crunches. But I don’t recommend them. And there’s a good reason for that:
Dr. Stuart McGill is a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada. In the lab, McGill and his colleagues have shown that one of the quickest ways to damage the lower back is to load the spine while repeatedly bending it back and forth.
Which is remarkably similar to what is going on when you perform a sit-up or crunch.
You might know someone whose back ‘just went’ during a simple everyday task, like picking up a pencil from the floor, lifting a bag from the car, or even just sneezing.
“Very few back injuries, however, result from a single event”, says McGill. Instead, most injuries to the lower back are the result of damage accumulated over time. And the event that appeared to cause the injury was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.
While there’s a time and a place for every exercise, for 99% of people sit-ups and crunches simply aren’t the best option if you want to keep your back healthy.
Fortunately, there are much safer – and often more effective – ways of training the core.
So if you’re already following a program that includes sit-ups, you can simply substitute them for one of these 7 best core exercises. And if you haven’t started yet, these exercises will help you get off to the best possible start.
You can do most of these exercises anywhere. Enjoy!
The 7 Best Core Exercises
1. Plank Variations
If you’re just starting out on your journey to get fit and healthy, planks can make a good starting point.
The only problem is that the standard plank quickly becomes too easy (the world record for the longest held plank is 1 hour and 20 minutes!)
If you want to build a strong and muscular core, you need to challenge yourself in new ways. Here are some variations to toughen up the standard plank and make sure you’re getting more bang for your buck:
The traditional plank can be made more difficult by removing a contact point from the floor. From the standard plank position:
- Raise one foot off the ground and hold it there.
- Make sure to hold your body still and keep your spine in a “neutral” position (no arching or rounding your back).
- Avoid tilting sideways.
- Switch legs every 5-10 seconds.
Here’s how it should look:
The side plank targets many smaller core muscles that are often neglected.
It’s tougher than a regular plank so you won’t be able to hold it for as long. Start out with short holds of 10 seconds on each side, and work your way up.
RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge) Plank
This is my personal favorite plank variation.
The general idea is that you are creating tension throughout your whole body by actively contracting your muscles. This should make you tremble and make it impossible to hold for an extended period of time.
In the video below Bret Contreras does a great job of describing the RKC plank:
2. Reverse Crunches
“But I thought you said no crunches!?”
These are reverse crunches which, as the name suggests, are the opposite of regular crunches. And unlike regular crunches, they help improve your posture.
They’re easier than some of the other exercises on this list, but they definitely shouldn’t be underestimated. If you’ve never done them before you will get sore.
It’s important that you keep your core tight throughout this exercise (tense it as if somebody was going to punch you in the stomach).
Steve Kamb from Nerd Fitness shows you how to get them right:
3. Hollow Body Hold
On their first day of training, gymnasts learn the hollow-body hold.
It’s a foundational position that involves bracing your abdominals and creating total-body tension, and it’s integral to many other movements in the sport.
While you may not be a gymnast, the hollow body hold is still immensely beneficial. It will improve your pull-ups, squats, handstands, and just about any other full-body movement.
Our friends from GMB explain how it should be done:
4. Dead Bug
Dead bugs look easy.
But if they feel easy, I can almost guarantee you’re doing them wrong.
Your back should be flush against the ground throughout, which is accomplished by keeping your core braced. And the movement should be slow and controlled.
Here’s how NOT to do them:
And here’s how they SHOULD look:
5. TRX Fallouts
Ab wheel rollouts are thought to be the most effective core exercise in existence.
But as the name suggests, you need an ab wheel to perform them. You probably don’t have room for an ab wheel in your suitcase or backpack, so the next best thing is a suspension trainer (such as TRX).
Using a suspension trainer, you can perform fallouts, which challenge your core in much the same way as the ab wheel.
One added benefit of using a suspension trainer is that it is easy to adjust the difficulty of the exercise. If you stand close to upright it will be fairly easy, but if you lengthen the straps and lower yourself closer to the ground it will be much tougher.
Here’s a video demonstration by Jen Ferruggia:
6. Hanging Leg-Raises
To do hanging leg-raises you’ll need something to hold on to.
A playground would be an ideal place to do them as part of a workout including some other exercises that require a bar, but if you can’t find one, don’t sweat it. Do some of the other exercises on this list and save the hanging leg-raises until next time.
They’re a relatively simple looking exercise, but believe me; they’re tough.
If you’re struggling, start by bending your leg and raising your knees to your chest instead.
Notice in the video below that she is controlling the motion throughout the set (not swinging). That’s the key to getting this exercise right.
7. Body Saws
Body saws are like some sort of sick, twisted combination of fallouts and a plank.
This is an advanced exercise, so if you’re new to training your core I suggest you start with one of the earlier exercises on this list.
That said, if you can do it, it’s an awesome exercise. Ensure that your core is braced and you are in control of the movement the whole time.
Bonus Best Core Exercise: Chin-Ups
In his spare time, Bret Contreras carries out EMG experiments.
These experiments measure the electrical activity of muscle during exercise, which allows him to figure out what the most effective exercises are for a given muscle group.
Surprisingly, when he was testing exercises for the abs, the chin-up came out as one of the most effective exercises.
However, for the chin-up to be an effective exercise for your abs (and to make it safer in general) you must focus on keeping your body in a straight line.
This means you shouldn’t be lifting your legs, swinging, or arching your lower back.
Here’s how it should (and shouldn’t) look:
Getting Lean and Mean
So there you have it… 7 (well, actually, 8) of the best core exercises in existence.
These exercises will help you avoid or reduce back pain, improve your posture, lift heavier weights, and yes, build a six-pack.
But there’s a catch:
You could do each of these exercises every day for the rest of your life, and never get a flat stomach. To have visible abs, you need to have a low body fat percentage.
And for that to happen, your diet needs to be on point.
Because the sad truth is that you can’t get lean through exercise alone.
We have fat loss meal plans and recipes in the Travel Strong Members Area (as well as specific fat loss workouts and challenges for your core), but for now, here are some pointers to help you get started:
- Start tracking your calories using MyFitnessPal.
- Use MyFitnessPal to work out how many calories you should be eating each day (maintenance), and then reduce your intake by 500kcal.
- Eat real, nutritious food 80% of the time.