Working out can build you up or break you down. That's especially true when it comes to core exercises.
Perform the right moves the right way and you'll get stronger, more athletic, and—barring injury—more likely to enjory a life free of back pain. But doing the wrong exercises—or doing the right ones with poor form—and can cause a host of problems.
Simply put, the improper core training is "a potent injury mechanism," according to Dr. Stu McGill, head of the Spine Biomechanics Lab at the University of Waterloo.
You're probably familiar with what McGill is talking about if you've ever grunted your way through an 8-minute "ab finisher." Typically you'll feel "the burn" at first, but stiffness in your back later.
Or maybe you've done endless sit-ups and crunches and gotten a few lines to show up in your midsection. But has it really improved your sports performance? (Here's a guide to help you find out.)
If not, then it's time to stop what you're doing and make a change. In this article we'll help you identify and ditch core moves that are ineffective and can cause pain, then give you better exercises that train the core the way it was meant to perform.
By the time you reach the end of this story, you'll have a clear understanding of what is—and what it is not—a good core exercise. But before we get into that, we have to ask you a simple (but important!) question…
Do You Even Know What the Core Muscles Are?
Unfortunately, most people don't.
That's a problem because a lack of understanding is what leads people to train the core incorrectly. So if you'll pardon the quick anatomy lesson, here's what you need to know about the core.
The core is a lot more than just the "six-pack." In fact the core consists of muscles from your chest down to your upper thighs, in every direction all around your body. Meanwhile, the muscle that causes the six-pack look is just one muscle, called the Rectus Abdominus.
The rectus abdominus can flex the trunk just like you do when you perform Crunches and Sit-ups. That's why those exercises are so popular—they work this muscle, which gives you the "abs" look. The problem is that there are five other major muscle groups in the core that are just as—if not more—important to your spinal health and sports performance.
External Obliques. These are the muscles that form the outer wall of your core along the sides. Like the rectus abdominus, they can help flex the trunk. They also help create rotation, so they're very involved with movements like throwing a baseball.
Sitting just beneath the external obliques are the Internal Obliques. These muscles run from the pelvis up to the ribcage.
Another major internal core muscle is the Transverse Abdominus, or "TVA." This muscle wraps around you like a corset, helping to improve your stability.
The last two core muscles we'll talk about here are the Spinal Erectors in your back and the Hip Flexors, located on the front of your hips.
These two muscles can contribute to a common condition in athletes called anterior pelvic tilt, in which the pelvis dumps forward and tallbone hikes up behind them. A little anterior pelvic tilt is okay, but too much can be a bad thing. Good core workouts will help keep anterior pelvic tilt in check.
What Most Core Exercises Get Wrong
Here's the problem with some of the most popular core exercises out there--moves like Sit-Ups, Crunches and Russian Twists. All of these moves, which require the spine to do a lot of bending or twisting, can be risky.
Why? Because those movements place an undo amount of stress on the spinal discs between each vertebrae. McGill's research shows that, with enough bends, those discs will suffer damage. It's not a question of "if." It's "when."
For this reason, McGill recommends that people ditch exercises that force you to do a lot of forward bending. His view is that you should save those bends for the times you really need them, like when you bend over to tie your cleats.
But there's another reason why traditional core exercises aren't all that effective for athletes: They ask the core to do a job that it's not really meant to do.
"The core is more of a force transmitter than a force producer," says Mike Robertson, co-owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training (IFAST) and physical preparation coach to the Indy Eleven professional soccer team. "It's not really meant to generate movement."
Most of the time, the muscles in your core are resisting motion, rather than creating it. A strong, stable core more shifts force from the lower body to the upper body by acting as a brace of sorts, transmitting energy from the ground to your outer extremities (the arms and legs).
"Athletes are not a collection of body parts. We need to unify our upper and lower bodies," explains Robertson. "Smart core training ties our upper and lower bodies together to help us create seamless and athletic movements."
The 3 Main Functions of Core Exercises
McGill's approach to core training does exactly what Robertson describes--ties the upper and lower body together with a strong, stable core. The movements he recommends train three functions of a healthy core:
- Anti-extension: This refers to exercises like Planks or Dead Bugs. When you perform these moves, the goal is for your core to prevent the lower back from arching. In biomechanics lingo, an "extended" lumbar spine is arched, while a "flexed" lumbar spine would be rounded. If you prevent your belly from sagging toward the ground while you hold a Plank, you are training anti-extension.
- Anti-rotation: This includes movements like the Pallof Press. In these exercises, you prevent your trunk from rotating against a sideways force.
- Anti-lateral flexion: Includes Side Planks and any exercise in which you're carrying an unbalanced load of heavy weights, such as a Contralateral Carry. In these movements, the goal is for your core to resist bending sideways. ("Lateral flexion" is the technical way to refer to a sideways bend).
While some of the 27 best core exercises for athletes will train one of these qualities solely, most hit several of these functions at once.
The 27 Best Core Exercises for Athletes
Taking into account everything we know about the core--the many muscles it encompasses, how those muscles support the back, and how all of those tissues work with the spine to support you during sports, we've assembled this master list of 27 exercises.
Every move on this list, performed correctly, will be safe for your spine. They can actually improve back pain in some instances.
How? By following McGill's principles. They do not ask your spine to generate movement. By training your spine to perform in the way it was meant to perform, these exercises set you up for long term back health.
The exercises on this list are also more time efficient. Each of them trains your entire core--all of the major muscle groups we described above. You won't be wasting your time doing isolation moves that make you "feel the burn" for a few minutes but don't add much in terms of long-term value.
Finally, these exercises train your core to be strong and stable while your limbs are moving. This seems simple in theory, but in practice it's easy to let your midsection go soft when you move. That creates energy leaks and inefficient movements. By teaching your body how to brace while you move your arms and legs, you'll be more powerful in every sports movement you make.
1. RKC Plank
You simply need to hold your body in a straight line, which may look easy. And many of you may be able to hold a Plank for several minutes. But if you do it right, even the basic Plank should be incredibly challenging. Our favorite version? The RKC Plank, which even the strongest athletes can hold for only 10-15 seconds.
- Assume a standard Plank position with your elbows under your shoulders, chin tucked and back straight.
- Squeeze your fists and lock in your shoulders by trying to rotate your arms outward.
- Squeeze your legs together and contract your quads and glutes.
- Imagine pulling your elbows to your toes as if moving into a pike position.
2. Mountain Climbers
This popular exercise teaches your upper body to maintain its position during rapid leg movements, and can be used as an endurance move.
- Assume a push-up position with your back flat and core tight.
- Bring your right knee to your chest with your toes on the ground.
- Drive your right leg backward until it's straight and simultaneously bring your left knee to your chest.
- Continue bringing your knees to your chest in an alternating fashion. Do not bounce up and down.
3. Rolling Side Plank
This combines a Plank and Side Plank, forcing your core muscles to brace during changing positions, making it challenging for both your abs and obliques.
- Lie on your side with your bottom elbow on the ground under eath your shoulder and your forearm perpendicular to your body.
- Position your top foot on the ground in front of your bottom foot. Raise your top arm vertically to form a T with your upper body.
- Drive your hips up to form a straight line with your body from head to toe. Tighten your abs, glutes and quads.
- Keeping your core tight, rotate your torso and place your opposite elbow on the ground to assume a Side Plank position on your opposite side.
- Continue slowly rolling side to side.
4. Physioball Circles
An advanced variation of the Plank, moving your forearms in a circle on a physioball makes the exercise unstable and your abs seriously burn.
- Assume a Plank position with your elbows on a physioball.
- Keeping your core tight, rotate your arms clockwise to move the physioball in a circle
- Repeat, moving your arms counterclockwise.
5. Physioball or TRX Pike to Rollout
According to Nick Tumminello, owner of Performance U, this may be the king of core exercises. (See if you're ready to take it on.) It combines flexion and anti-extension moves to isolate the abs with minimal stress on the hip flexors and lower back.
- Assume a push-up position with your feet on a physioball. Keep your back straight and core tight.
- Drive your hips up so your body is in an inverted V position.
- Return to the starting position and drive your body back into a rollout.
RELATED: Learn how to perform the Physioball Pike to Rollout.
6. Physioball Buzzsaw
A great anti-extension core exercise that's more difficult than a Plank but easier than a Rollout, making this a great progression exercise.
- Assume a plank position with your elbows on a physioball.
- Keeping your core tight, drive your elbows forward to push the physioball forward.
- Roll the physioball back to the starting position.
7. Ab Wheel Rollout or Barbell Rollouts
"[Your abs] don't bring your shoulders closer to your hips or your hips closer to your shoulders," explains Mike Boyle, owner of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning. "What they actually do is prevent you from going into extension." So, the Ab Wheel Rollout—which can also be done with a barbell—hits your abs better than any type of Crunch.
- Kneel on a towel or pad and grasp the ab wheel handles or barbell.
- Take a deep breath in and tighten your abs. Slowly roll forward until your arms are overhead and your torso is parallel to the floor.
- Keep your hips slightly elevated—don't drive them to the floor.
- Roll the wheel back toward your knees to return to the starting position.
8. Renegade Row
Everything in your core along with muscles in your shoulders, back, chest, hips and even quads have to work to keep you in the proper position during this exercise. "The Renegade Row is an indication that everything in your body is firing and firing proportionately," says Dr. Joel Seedman, owner of Advanced Human Performance. That's why it's the ultimate test of core strength.
- Set up two dumbbells parallel to each other about a foot apart.
- Assume a push-up position with your hands grasping the dumbbells instead of flat on the ground. Position your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Tighten your core and keep your back flat and hips square to the ground.
- Pick up the right dumbbell and row it to your side.
- Slowly lower the dumbbell and repeat. Perform on the opposite side.
9. Hanging Leg Raises
According to Brian Nguyen, owner of Brik Fitness and Mark Wahlberg's personal trainer, simply hanging on the bar is core work for the upper body. "Some of my favorite exercises to do for the core involve static shoulders and dynamic hips," he says. Add a Leg Raise, and your entire core works to produce movement while preventing your body from swinging back and forth.
- Hold onto a bar as if performing a Pull-Up with your arms and legs straight.
- Keeping your core tight, bring your legs up until they're parallel to the ground.
- Slowly lower your legs to the starting position.
- Do your best to avoid rocking back and forth.
RELATED: Basic Core Exercises for Beginners
10. Single-Leg Lowering
This is one of the most basic movements. Lots of athletes can perform it for many, many reps. But done right and paired with proper breathing technique, it's one of the best ways to activate your core muscles and restore your posture.
- Lie on your back and bring your left leg up until it's nearly perpendicular to the ground, depending on your flexibility. Wrap a resistance band around your left foot and hold it with your hands.
- Take a deep breath in.
- As you exhale, slowly lower your left leg and drive your heel away from you. Lower until your foot is a few inches above the ground.
- Inhale and raise your right leg up until it's next to your left leg.
- Repeat with your opposite leg.
11. Core-Engaged Dead Bug
This exercise might look simple, but done right it's one of the best ways to train your core or prepare it for heavy training. The beauty of this exercise is that it improves breathing patterns and teaches your core to brace when your legs are moving, an essential skill for athletes.
- Lie on your back with your arms extended in front of your shoulders.
- Hold a resistance band or cable with the attachment or machine overhead.
- Bend your hips and knees to a 90-degree angle.
- Tighten your abs and press your lower back into the floor. Take a deep breath in.
- As you exhale, slowly extend your left leg toward the floor and bring your right arm overhead. Keep your abs tight and don't let your lower back arch.
- Slowly return your arm and leg to the starting position. Repeat with your opposite arm and leg.
12. The Lewit
A corrective exercise, the Lewit engages your deep core muscles, which are difficult to develop with other movements.
- Lie on your back with your arms at your sides. Bend your hips and knees to a 90-degree angle. Maintain a naturally arched back.
- Slightly rock your pelvis forward and backward on your tailbone to fine-tune your back position.
- Once you're comfortable, take three normal breaths. Exhale normally on your third breath, then purse your lips and push any remaining air out of your lungs.
- Reset by rocking your pelvis and repeat the breathing pattern.
RELATED: Learn More About the Lewit
13. Turkish Get-Up
It looks weird and is tough to learn, but it's worth the trouble. According to Boyle, it's a fundamental movement that everyone should be able to perform. Plus, it builds serious core strength, improves mobility and increases shoulder stability.
- Lie on the ground holding a kettlebell in your right hand overhead.
- Bend your right knee and extend your opposite arm to the side. Fix your eyes on the kettlebell.
- Slowly sit up by shifting your weight to your left elbow and then your hand.
- Drive through your left hand and right heel to extend your hips and raise your body into a bridge position.
- Swing your left leg under your body and assume a kneeling position.
- Repeat on the other side.
14. Hollow Body Holds
An exercise popular with gymnasts, this one strengthens the abs without wearing down the lumbar spine like a Crunch or Sit-Up.
- Raise your legs straight up, bring your arms overhead and crunch your shoulders up.
- Tighten your abs as if bracing for a punch, making sure your lower back is flat against the floor.
- Hold this position, making sure to breathe throughout the hold.
15. Modified Curl-Up
As a substitute for Crunches and Sit-Ups, Dr. Stuart McGill, a leading spine researcher at the University of Waterloo, recommends the Modified Curl-Up. It looks sort of like a Crunch, but the actual movement is significantly different and safe for the lumbar spine. "This Curl-Up is light years away from a standard abdominal crunch exercise," says McGill in his book Back Mechanic.
- Lie with your back on the floor.
- Place your hands flat under your lower back and raise your elbows slightly off the ground.
- Bend one leg so that your foot is in line with your opposite knee.
- Keeping a straight neck, tighten your abs as if bracing for a punch and raise your head and shoulders off the ground slightly. Hold this position for 10 seconds.
- Lower and repeat.
16. Reverse Crunch
This is one of the best ways to directly target your abs, and it works. "It feels like you got kicked in the stomach a couple of times after you do them," says Dr. John Rusin, a strength coach and physical therapist.
- Lie back on a bench with your thighs perpendicular to the ground.
- Place a foam roller between your hamstrings and calves and squeeze the roller.
- Place your hands over your head and grab the sides of the bench.
- Forcefully contract your abs to lift your butt off the bench and your knees up above your chest. Hold this position for one or two seconds with a maximal ab contraction.
- Slowly lower back to the starting position until your butt is on the bench and your thighs are perpendicular to the ground.
17. Bird Dog
"Whether you're an athlete, bodybuilder, powerlifter, fitness enthusiast or an active individual looking for a way to improve your low-back function and spinal health, the Bird Dog is a worthwhile drill that can enhance multiple aspects of performance and muscle function," says Dr. Seedman.
- While maintaining a flat back, kneel on the floor with your knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders.
- Keeping your abs tight, raise your opposite arm and leg until they are straight and in line with your body. Do not arch your lower back.
- Return to the starting position and repeat with your opposite arm and leg.
RELATED: 8 Challenging Bird Dog Variations
18. Pallof Press
The Palloff Press trains your core to resist rotation. "A lot of times when we are working the core, we use things like super bands and do a lot of rotational work," says Todd Durkin. "Anti-rotation is great for stability of the obliques, core and lower back." (Check out these 5 Killer Pallof Press Variations.)
- Stand with your feet wider than hip width and position your body perpendicular to a cable machine.
- Grasp the cable handle with both hands directly in front of your chest.
- Keeping your core tight, extend your arms in front of your chest.
- Bring your hands back to your chest to return to the starting position.
19. Med Ball Rotational Throws
This one increases rotational power from your hips and core, which is critical for throwing a ball, swinging a bat or taking a slap shot.
- Stand with your left side facing a wall about 5 feet away with your knees and hips bent, holding a med ball in front of your waist.
- Shift your weight to your right foot and swing the med ball to your right hip.
- Drive through your hips, rotate at your core and throw the med ball against the wall with an underhand toss.
- Catch the ball off the wall and immediately repeat.
20. Med Ball Slams
Increase your ability to explosively generate force through your lower body and core to power an upper-body movement.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart holding a med ball at chest height with your arms extended.
- Rise up onto your toes, lift the med ball overhead and slam it straight down, generating power through your hips and core.
- Catch the ball off the bounce and set up for your next rep.
21. Farmer's Walks
Once used primarily to increase grip strength, Farmer's Walks and other loaded carries are simply a moving Plank, where your core must fire to stabilize your trunk and hips while you walk with weight.
- Stand between two sets of weights—dumbbells, kettlebells or custom barbells—and grab hold of the weights.
- Brace your core and glutes and drive through the floor to lift the weights.
- Keeping your core tight, back flat and shoulders down and back, take small and quick steps for the allotted distance or time.
- Put the weights down carefully—do not simply drop them on the floor.
22. TRX Rip Trainer Pitchfork
Pulling the Rip Trainer up and behind your body activates everything from your hands to your feet, while your core fights to prevent rotation and keep you upright.
- Assume a quarter-squat stance facing the cord mount.
- Hold the Rip Trainer in front with a shoulder-width, overhand grip; hold the bottom of the Rip Trainer with your left hand and your right hand near the cord.
- Simultaneously extend your hip and knees to drive the tip of the Rip Trainer over your shoulder. Briefly hold this position.
- Lower in control and repeat.
23. Wide-Stance Anti-Rotation Chop
A slow and controlled movement that teaches your core to produce and resist rotation through a full range of motion.
- Assume an extra-wide stance with a cable machine to your right.
- Hold the rope attachment in front of your chest with your arms extended.
- Rotate your upper body to the right as far as your range of motion allows without rotating through your lower back. Keep your arms directly in front of your chest—do not move your lower body.
- Reverse the movement and rotate your upper body toward the left as far as you can, pulling the rope attachment with you as you move.
- Continue rotating your torso in each direction
24. Landmine Rainbow
"If you want a strong core that will help you perform athletically on the field, you need to perform integrated core exercises," says Tumminello. To do this, you need to work your core while engaging your shoulders and glutes.
- Place a barbell in a landmine rack and load the desired amount of weight (it's best to start light).
- Stand directly in front of the end of the barbell and raise it above your head with both hands.
- While keeping your body stationary, move the barbell in a rainbow-like arc. Bend slightly at the elbows while moving the weight, but try not to rotate at the hips or shoulders.
- Stand tall throughout the movement.
25. Barbell Offset Iso Holds
The uneven load on the barbell naturally pulls you to one side, and you have to tighten your entire core to maintain an upright position. "You are breathing and bracing under stress and really learning how to engage your core muscles, not just your six-pack muscles," says Matthew Ibrahim, strength coach and owner of Movement Resilience.
- Load a barbell with a plate on one side and position it on a rack at hip height.
- Grasp the bar with a shoulder-width grip and pick it up off the rack.
- Tighten your core as forcefully as possible for the specified duration before returning the bar to the rack.
- Complete your sets on one side, then switch the plate to the opposite side of the bar.
26. Contralateral Carries
Holding a light kettlebell overhead and a heavy kettlebell in the rack position at your shoulder has benefits similars to Farmer's Walks, but it forces your core muscles to handle uneven loads in challenging positions.
- Hold a heavy kettlebell with your right hand at shoulder height in the rack position. Hold a lightweight kettlebell with your left hand overhead.
- Keep your core tight and back flat. Avoid arching through your lower back.
- Walk slowly for a specified distance or duration. Switch the positions of the kettlebells for the next set.
27. Heavy Lifts
Squats, Deadlifts and their variations are among the best ways to develop a strong core. During the movement, your core muscles work overtime to keep your spine in place and handle the heavy weight load. Although they are effective, do not rely exclusively on heavy lifts to develop your core.
The exercises above have many variations, and some other exercises are extremely effective, but we couldn't include every single one. But we're confident that if you add some of the core exercises above to your training, you will develop the core strength you need for athletic performance and long-term health.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock