Strengthen Every Muscle in Your Core With These 12 Trainer-Approved Moves

POPSUGAR Photography | Chaunté Vaughn
POPSUGAR Photography | Chaunté Vaughn

Building a strong, functional core is no small feat. It can be easy to neglect, but our core is responsible for so much of our daily functioning, playing a role in posture, stability, and even lower back pain, according to the Mayo Clinic. Whether you're looking to strength train, trying to relieve pain, or just want to be comfortable doing your day-to-day responsibilities, ab-strengthening exercises are the perfect place to start (and they don't even have to take that long). To get you started, we spoke to certified trainers about the best core-strengthening exercises you can incorporate into your routine — no equipment necessary.

"Strengthening a weak core is something that can be massively helpful," says Richard Wilcock, MS, CSCS, personal trainer and owner of Flagship Fitness in the UK. "It can help relieve back pain, help prevent slips and falls, and make other exercises easier." This is another reason why core-strengthening exercises are so fundamentally important. A stronger core is good for so much more than just strength training.

What Are Core Muscles?

Your core encapsulates more muscles than you might expect. "Your core is composed of many muscles in the abdomen, hips, back, butt, and legs," said Sean Alexander, ACE-certified personal trainer and the CEO of Simple Approach, in a previous interview with POPSUGAR. "It's necessary to work all of these muscles when training your core." Here's a quick overview of your main core muscles and what they do:

  • Rectus abdominis: These are known as your "six-pack" muscles, or what we typically think of as our abs. They run along the front of your stomach and are the top layer of your core. The rectus abdominis helps your torso flex or bend forward (think: like a crunch).
  • Transverse abdominis: Your transverse abdominis is sometimes called your "deep core." It's located under your ribs and above your pelvis, wrapping all the way around your torso beneath your rectus abdominis. This muscle helps to stabilize and support your internal organs as well as your spine and pelvis.
  • Obliques: Your oblique muscles are the muscles that wrap around the sides of your abs. Their job is to rotate your torso, help it bend from side to side, and also provide stability.
  • Multifidus: Your multifidus is a series of triangular clusters of muscle on either side of your spine that serve to support your back. These muscles help you arch, tilt, and bend your back.
  • Erector spinae: Your erector spinae are the long muscles that extend up your back on either side of your spine. They help you straighten your back and rotate your torso.
  • Diaphragm: Your diaphragm is the dome-shaped muscle directly below your lungs that plays a major role in breathing. When you inhale, the muscle contracts to pull air into the lungs; when you exhale, it relaxes, returning to its full size to push the air out.
  • Pelvic floor muscles: Your pelvic floor muscles form a "hammock-like sling of support" beneath your pelvis, said Christine King, DPT, PRPC, physical therapist lead for Hoag's Pelvic Health Program, in a previous interview with POPSUGAR. Your pelvic floor controls the sphincters of your bowel and bladder to prevent incontinence (leakage); supports your spine as well as your uterus, bowel, and bladder; and is involved in sexual function and orgasm intensity.
  • Glutes: Your glutes (including gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus — just to name a few) are the muscles in your butt. Their job is to help move your hips and stabilize your pelvis to keep you balanced.

Your core muscles play a big role in supporting and stabilizing your spine and pelvis. When your core muscles begin to weaken, it can lead to various types of injuries, back pain, and pelvis misalignment issues. You'll be able to tell if your core is weak if you're struggling with core stability moves such as planks, glutes bridges, and dead bugs.

Ahead, check out core-strengthening exercises that trainers recommend, learn why they work, and get step-by-step instructions for how to complete each one. Add these beginner-friendly core-strength exercises into your workouts to start building strength and stability in your abs, glutes, obliques, and beyond.

Bird Dog
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Bird Dog

"This is a great whole-body movement that works against gravity to challenge our stability by adding moving limbs," says certified trainer Cara Bonney, ACE, NSCA, lead instructor and master trainer for Club Pilates in McKinney, TX. "It's a great low-impact core move that helps improve stability without putting too much pressure on the joints," adds NASM-certified trainer Jaime McFaden, a master trainer for Aaptiv.

How to Strengthen Your Core With Bird Dog:

  1. Start on all fours, with your knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders. Remember to keep abs engaged and keep your back straight.
  2. Reach your right hand forward so your arm is right next to your head and extend your left leg behind you at hip height knee pointing down.
  3. Slowly draw your right arm and left leg in to connect your right elbow with your left knee under your torso. That's one rep.
Glute Bridge
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Glute Bridge

The glute bridge "helps to stabilize the core while incorporating the lower half of the body and strengthening the pelvic floor," says Shaina McGregor, ACE-certified group fitness instructor and certified life coach. "In the bridge position, the core muscles (rectus abdominis, transverse, and obliques) activate to maintain stability. It also helps to reduce back pain and improve posture."

How to Strengthen Your Core With Glute Bridges:

  1. Lie faceup on a mat with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Be sure to keep your feet underneath your knees, not in front. Plant your hands by your sides, palms facing down.
  2. Press into your heels to raise your hips up to the ceiling, tensing your abs and squeezing your butt as you do. You should be making a long diagonal line with your body, from shoulders to knees.
  3. Hold for a few seconds, making sure your spine doesn't round and your hips don't sag. Keep your abs and butt muscles engaged.
  4. Lower your hips to the ground. That's one rep.
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The clamshell strengthens your hip muscles and pelvic floor while (bonus!) balancing the strength of inner and outer thighs, Bonney says. "This move is especially good for runners, as a lot of our ankle and knee alignment comes from the pelvis and hips being stable," she says.

How to Strengthen Your Core With Clamshells:

  1. Lie on your left side with one leg stacked on top of the other, knees bent at about a 45-degree angle and your feet in line with your hips. Rest your head on your left arm.
  2. Brace your abs or draw your belly button in toward your spine.
  3. Keeping your feet touching, raise your right knee as high as you can. Be sure not to shift your hips or pelvis. Your lower leg should remain in contact with the floor.
  4. Hold for one second, then return your right leg to the starting position. That's one rep.
Dead Bug Crunch
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Dead Bug Crunch

"This slow-paced exercise allows for core engagement throughout," says NASM-certified trainer Keisha Villarson. "It also exercises the entire core, activates the transverse abdominis, and builds spine stability."

How to Strengthen Your Core With Dead Bug Crunches:

  1. Lie faceup on the floor with your knees bent at 90 degrees and stacked directly over your hips, so shins are parallel to the floor. Extend your arms up toward the ceiling.
  2. Reach your right arm next to your ear, and extend your left leg toward the floor, stopping when it's a few inches above the floor. Keep your lower back flat on the floor.
  3. Pause, then return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side. That's one rep.
Pilates 100s
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Pilates 100s

Pilates 100s challenge every part of your core, says Daniela Mazal, a certified Pilates teacher at Old School Pilates. Lifting your head engages your abs, pumping your arms engages your back muscles, and your pelvic floor and glutes are working to support your legs. "The focus on breath throughout this exercise engages the diaphragm, which stabilizes the core from the inside out, especially on the deep exhalations," Mazal adds.

How to Strengthen Your Core With Pilates 100s:

  1. Start lying on your back with your legs in a tabletop position (knees over hips and knees bent at a 90-degree angle). Engage your deep abs to press your lower spine into the floor.
  2. Exhale and lift your upper back off the floor until the bottom tips of your shoulder blades skim the floor. Straighten your legs to a 45-degree angle (but make sure your low back is staying connected to the floor). Reach your arms long by your sides, holding them about two inches off the floor.
  3. Pump your arms up and down with a small range of motion, keeping your elbows straight. Inhale for five arm pumps, and exhale for five pumps. That completes one set or cycle. Over time, work your way up to 10 cycles.
Elbow Plank
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Elbow Plank

A classic elbow plank is a good choice because "it contracts every portion of your core," says celebrity fitness trainer DeBlair Tate. "This exercise also helps improve your balance, which directly reflects your core strength." You can even use this move to test your core strength level; just see how long you can hold the plank while maintaining your form, Tate suggests.

How to Strengthen Your Core With Elbow Planks:

  1. Find a low-plank position, holding your weight on your elbows and toes, making a straight line from head to heels.
  2. Contract your abdominals to prevent your hips from lifting up or dropping down. Keep your back flat and glutes tight.
  3. Hold as long as you can. Aim for 20 to 30 seconds in the beginning, and work your way up to one minute as you get stronger.
Side Plank
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Side Plank

"This is one of my favorite moves, as you're targeting your obliques while not putting additional pressure on your spine by crunching," says NASM-certified personal trainer Holly Roser.

How to Strengthen Your Core With Side Planks:

  1. Begin by lying on your left side. Bring your left elbow directly under your left shoulder. Place your right foot on top or in front of your left foot.
  2. Lift your hips up into a side elbow plank, balancing on your elbow and the side of your left foot. Make sure your hips are in line with your shoulders and feet, and try not to collapse into your left shoulder; think about making space between your shoulder and neck.
  3. Hold this position. Start with 15-30 seconds, and build up to one minute as you get stronger.
Bear Hold
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Bear Hold

The bear hold "provides all the benefits of a traditional plank pose, with limited to no pressure on the lower back," says Nicole Romano Uribarri, barre, yoga, and HIIT fitness instructor. This core-strengthening move specifically targets your transverse abdominals, which "act as stabilizers and support the lower back."

How to Strengthen Your Core With Bear Holds:

  1. Start in a quadruped position (on hands and knees) with hands directly underneath your shoulders and your knees directly underneath your hips. Your core should be engaged and your spine should be neutral.
  2. With control, lift and hold your knees one inch off the ground. Be sure to keep your back flat, your neck long (look straight down at the floor, not forward or at your feet) and your abs engaged.
  3. Hold this position. Try 15-30 seconds, and work your way up to a minute as you get stronger.
POPSUGAR Photography | Sam Kang


This simple-but-challenging core exercise works "your entire rectus abdominis, core muscles from your pubic bone and ending at the sternum," says Villarson. To modify this move, bend your knees.

How to Strengthen Your Core With V-Ups:

  1. Lie faceup on the floor with arms and legs extended and resting on the floor. Lift up both arms and legs so they're hovering off the floor in a hollow-body hold.
  2. Simultaneously reach your arms and legs toward each other, as if you could touch your toes directly over your belly button.
  3. Lower your arms and legs, without allowing them to rest on the floor. That's one rep.
High-to-Low Woodchop
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High-to-Low Woodchop

The high-to-low woodchop is a rotational movement, so it engages your core by forcing it to resist the side-to-side motion, says Rachel MacPherson, ACE-certified personal trainer. "This helps strengthen and stiffen the side body and core." Keep this move steady and controlled, and avoid using momentum to swing the weight.

How to Strengthen Your Core With High-to-Low Woodchops:

  1. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell or medicine ball in both hands. Twist upward to the right, bringing the weight above your head on a diagonal.
  2. Exhale and slice the weight diagonally across your body, ending with the weight outside of your left thigh. Pivot on your right foot, if needed, and focus on initiating the rotation in your torso.
  3. Lift the weight back up to the starting position with control. That's one rep.
Bent-Leg Toe Tap
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Bent-Leg Toe Tap

"This is such a great exercise because toe taps primarily activate the transverse and rectus abdominis," McGregor says. "This exercise doesn't place too much pressure on the low back, and helps to strengthen the muscles of the pelvic floor, which is also part of your core muscles." You can modify this move by lowering one foot at a time.

How to Strengthen Your Core With Bent-Leg Toe Taps:

  1. Lie faceup on the floor with your knees over your hips and your knees bent at a 90-degree angle so your shins are parallel to the floor. Your arms can be behind your head or extended by your sides, palms pressing into the floor.
  2. Make sure your pelvis is in a neutral position so that there's a slight curve in your lower back (it's not pressed flat against the floor). Your ribs should also be in contact with the floor.
  3. Inhale, then exhale as you pull in your deep abdominal muscle, and drop both feet towards the floor. Maintain a neutral spine and rib positioning and keep your knees at a 90-degree angle. There should be no movement or arching in your spine.
  4. Inhale as you bring your legs back to the starting position. That's one rep.
Seated Knee Tuck
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Seated Knee Tuck

The seated knee tuck "engages and strengthens the innermost core muscle, the transverse abdominus (TVA), that wraps around your torso," says NASM-certified personal trainer Chris Lee of You can either hold the tucked position for a tough isometric move, or perform reps as explained below.

How to Strengthen Your Core With Seated Knee Tucks:

  1. Start seated on the ground or on a weight bench. Place your hands about an inch behind your back with your fingers facing forward. Your feet should be on the ground.
  2. Lift both feet up off the ground, and extend both legs as you simultaneously lower your upper body. Be sure to get full extension at your hips and legs.
  3. With control, bring your legs back to your chest without touching the ground with your feet and return to the starting position.
  4. This counts as one rep.