The 10 Best Core Exercises for Muscle & Strength

Your core muscles form the foundation of everything else you do. Together, your core muscles bend, extend, rotate, and stabilize your body. Any time you create force or movement with your legs or arms, your core is where it all begins.

In this article, we’ll review ten of the best core exercises you can do to strengthen these vital muscles and build a stronger foundation for your body.

Let’s begin with a quick look at the core muscles to better understand the exercise selection.

Core Muscle Anatomy

Your core muscles are all the muscles surrounding your spine and abdomen, stabilizing your pelvis and trunk.

Some of your largest core muscles are:

  • Rectus abdominis
  • Internal and external obliques
  • Transversus abdominis
  • Erector spinae
  • Multifidus
  • Quadratus lumborum
  • Diaphragm
  • Pelvic floor
Your rectus abdominis and external obliques are the outermost muscles on the front and sides of your core.

Under your external obliques lies your internal obliques, which muscle fibers run perpendicular to the external obliques.
Beneath your internal obliques lies your transversus abdominis, which muscle fibers run horizontally across the sides of your abdomen, like a belt.
Your deep posterior (back) core muscles: erector spinae, multifidus, and quadratus lumborum. They run between your pelvis, vertebraes, and ribs.

As you can probably imagine, these muscles are capable of bending and rotating your spine in a wide variety of directions and angles.

For the sake of training the muscles, however, we can focus on four groups of movements:

  1. Bending (also called flexing) your torso forward, like in a crunch.
  2. Bending (or flexing) your torso to the sides, like in an oblique crunch.
  3. Extending your back, like in a back extension or deadlift.
  4. Rotating your spine, like when you’re swinging a baseball bat or like in windshield wipers.

In the rest of this article, we’ll go over ten of the best core muscle exercises that each incorporates one of the movements listed above.

1. Ab Wheel Roll-Out

The ab wheel roll-out is one of the best exercises you can do for the front of your core, mainly your rectus abdominus but also the front-most muscle fibers of your obliques.

Even the kneeling variation of this exercise can be quite difficult, especially for beginners. If you find that to be the case, you can either begin by building your core strength with other exercises first (like the crunch), or you can limit your range of motion by performing kneeling ab-wheels facing a wall. Have the wall stop you at a suitable distance, and then work on increasing your distance to the wall over time.

If you’re really strong, you can opt for the standing ab wheel roll-out – a true mark of high-level core strength. At least at the front of your core, however.

Strange, by the way, that no one in our team has been able to film a demonstration of the standing roll-out. Strange indeed.

Muscles Worked in Ab Wheel Roll-Outs

Ab wheel roll-out muscles worked

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Do Ab Wheel Roll-Outs

  1. Sit with your knees on a soft pad, and place the ab wheel on the floor in front of you.
  2. Roll out as far as you can, and maintain a straight back throughout the movement.
  3. Reverse the movement with control, and return to the starting position. 

2. Crunches

Don’t skimp on the classics. This ab exercise may be simple but is still an excellent exercise for targeting the front of your abdominal muscles.

If this exercise is too easy for you, you can increase the resistance by holding a small weight against your chest, perform crunches on a ball or declined bench, or try cable crunches. Or maybe even hanging sit-ups?

Muscles Worked in Crunches

Muscles worked by crunches

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Do Crunches

  1. Lie on your back with your hands in front of your chest and your knees bent to about 90 degrees.
  2. Lift your upper body by contracting your abs and bending forward.
  3. Bend as far forward as possible while still keeping your low back in contact with the floor, and then return to the starting position.

3. Hanging Leg Raise

The final exercise for the front of your core in this list is the hanging leg raise. This exercise will work your hip flexors dynamically while your abs have to work hard, mostly isometrically, to stabilize your torso.

To make this exercise easier, bend your knees and perform hanging knee raises instead.

To make it harder, pause with your legs in the L-position or keep moving them all the way up until they touch the bar (also known as the toes-to-bar exercise).

Muscles Worked in Hanging Leg Raise

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Do Hanging Leg Raises

  1. Jump up and grab a bar, placed high enough that you can hang from it with straight legs.
  2. Without swinging, lift your legs as high as you can in front of you.
  3. Lower your legs again, with control.

4. High to Low Wood Chop

Let’s move on from the front of your core to the sides. The wood chop exercise targets your obliques, the ab muscles that rotate your torso and flex it to the sides.

To work in line with your obliques’ muscle fibers, perform the wood chop from a high to a low position.

For this, you can use a cable pulley or a long resistance band like I am using in the GIF above.

Muscles Worked in High to Low Wood Chops

Muscles worked by High to Low Wood Chop

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Do High to Low Wood Chops

  1. Fasten an elastic band high up. Grip the band with both hands, step away, and stand sideways to the band’s anchor point.
  2. With almost straight arms, make a sweeping, chopping-like movement diagonally downward.
  3. Return to the starting position in a controlled manner.

5. Lying Windshield Wipers

Another rotational exercise that works your obliques is the lying windshield wiper.

To make this exercise harder, you can increase the speed of the movement without slamming your feet into the floor so that you need to break harder in the eccentric phase. Another alternative is to use ankle weights.

To make the exercise easier, bend your knees.

Muscles Worked in Lying Windshield Wipers

Muscles worked in lying windshield wiper

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Do Lying Windshield Wipers

  1. Lie on your back, with your arms out to your sides and your legs straight up in the air.
  2. Slowly lower your legs down to one side.
  3. Reverse the motion, and lower your legs down to your other side.

6. Oblique Sit-Up

The oblique sit-up is a variation of the standard sit-up that emphasizes your obliques.

I recommend you alternate between your left and right sides in every rep of this exercise. To make the exercise harder, try holding a weight against your chest or perform the oblique sit-ups on a ball or declined bench.

Muscles Worked in Oblique Sit-Ups

Muscles worked in oblique sit-up

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Do Oblique Sit-Ups

  1. Lie on your back, with your hands behind your head, and your legs bent to about 90 degrees. Use a weight or something to stick your feet under, so they don’t lift from the ground.
  2. Lift your upper body diagonally by contracting your obliques and bending forward, until your right elbow touches your left leg, or vice versa.
  3. Return to the starting position.

7. Side Plank

Another simple but effective exercise, the side plank challenges your side core muscles.

When you can hold this plank position for a minute easily, you can increase the challenge on your obliques by either holding a weight on top of your hips, or place your feet on something unstable, like in a couple of gymnastic rings or some other kind of suspension trainer.

Muscles Worked in the Side Plank

Muscles worked in the side plank exercise

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Do the Side Plank

  1. Stand on your side, leaning against one elbow.
  2. Place the foot of the top leg in front of the other foot.
  3. Brace your core, and try to form and hold a straight line from your head to your feet.

8. Back Extension

This classic back exercise is excellent for isolating your rear core muscles, namely your spinal erectors.

Make sure to begin light in this exercise as you get accustomed to it, and then gradually make it harder by holding a weight against your chest, or by extending your arms over your head, away from your hips.

You can make the exercise easier by keeping your hands along your body, for example, placing your hands on your hips.

Muscles Worked in Back Extensions

Muscles worked in back extensions

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Do Back Extensions

  1. First, adjust the machine: The top pad should be positioned against the top of your thighs.
  2. Step onto the machine and position yourself with your feet shoulder-width apart and your upper thighs against the top pad.
  3. Your upper body should be hanging off the edge of the machine, with your arms crossed over your chest or your hands behind your head.
  4. Hold a weight plate against your chest or a barbell across your shoulders if you want to use additional weight.
  5. Prepare to lift: Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale, engage your lower back muscles to lift your upper body until your body forms a straight line.
  6. Hold this position for a second, then inhale as you slowly lower your upper body back down to the starting position. Make sure to keep your movements slow and controlled, and don’t use momentum to swing your body up or down.

9. Jefferson Curl

The Jefferson curl is more of a mobility exercise than a strength training exercise, although it will strengthen your spinal erectors.

Start with very light weights, or even no weights at all in the beginning.

Use this exercise to increase mobility and control in your back and core.

Muscles Worked in Jefferson Curl

Jefferson Curl Muscles Worked

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Do Jefferson Curl

  1. Stand tall with a light barbell or other weight in your hands. For extra range of motion, you might want to stand on a small block.
  2. Bend forward by tucking your chin into your chest and then slowly and deliberately start to round your spine, vertebrae by vertebrae, starting from the neck and moving down towards the lower back.
  3. As you round your spine, allow the barbell to lower towards the ground, keeping it close to your body. Go as low as your flexibility allows, but don’t force it. You should feel a stretch but not pain.
  4. Once you’ve reached the lowest point that you can comfortably go, pause for a moment.
  5. Start uncurling your spine, beginning from the lower back and working your way up to your neck until you have returned to the starting position.

10. Deadlift

Finally, the classic deadlift. This exercise activates hundreds of muscles in your body, but it especially works your back muscles. Which, of course, makes up your posterior core muscles.

In addition to strengthening your back, this exercise will also teach you to brace and create a stiff core. That core stability is useful for transferring force between your upper and lower body.

Muscles Worked in the Deadlift

Deadlift muscles worked

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Deadlift with Proper Form

  1. Step up close to the bar so that it is about over the middle of your foot.
  2. Inhale, lean forward, and grip the bar.
  3. Hold your breath, brace your core slightly, and lift the bar.
  4. Pull the bar close to your body, with a straight back, until you are standing straight.
  5. Lower the bar back to the ground with control.
  6. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

How Many Core Exercises Should You Do?

How many core exercises you should do depends on your goals and how much time you are prepared to invest in your core training.

Minimalist Core Training Approach

A minimalist core training approach could be to simply pick one exercise for your frontal core muscles (your abs) and one for your posterior core muscles (your lower back).

Some common exercises for your lower back are, for example, deadlifts, squats, and back extensions.

For your front core muscles, examples are crunches, ab wheel roll-outs, and hanging leg raises.

Training the front and back core muscles would give you decent development of your core, but you would not get optimal development of your side core muscles.

Complete Core Training Approach

In order to work all of your major core muscles comprehensively, you should pick an exercise each for the front and back of your core, as outlined in the previous section. In addition, you should add an exercise for your side core muscles. Some examples are wood chops, lying windshield wipers, and oblique sit-ups.

By combining one exercise for the front, one for the sides, and one for the back of your core, you’ll develop all major muscles surrounding your trunk and pelvis and build a strong core.

How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do of Each Core Exercise?

Most of these core exercises lend themselves well to a medium-to-high rep range of about 6–15 reps per set. Heavier back exercises like the deadlift is better suited to the low end of this interval, while bodyweight exercises often lend themselves well to a little higher rep numbers.

This rep range is highly effective for muscle growth, and the medium-to-light reps that you will be using are easy on your elbow joints.

Regarding the number of sets, research has found that more sets lead to greater muscle growth up to a point of about ten sets per muscle per week.1

This is based mainly on studies with previously untrained participants, and it is likely that you will require slightly higher training volumes to keep growing as you get more trained. Up to 15 to 20 sets per muscle group and week is not uncommon for trained individuals to do, but you should be careful not to do too much too soon, as that increases your risk of injury.

You should also consider wether your core is worked in more exercises than just these dedicated core exercises. Your core muscles are involved in most exercises done when standing on your feet, and it is important to consider how much they are worked in total in your entire training program.

A Core Workout for Muscle & Strength Gains

Don’t want to design your own core workout?

Then follow our core workout to develop your core strength and musculature. It uses a variety of exercises to develop all of your major core muscles.

I hope you learned something from this list of the best core exercises, and wish you good luck with your core training!


  1. J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
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Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and international-level lifters. Daniel regularly shares tips about strength training on Instagram, and you can follow him here.