The Best Core Stability Exercises to Level Up Your Workouts

These eight core stability exercises will help you move through life more efficiently — and pain-free.

Core Stability
Stocksy.

The bicycle crunches, mountain climbers, and toe touches you do on the reg surely help build strength throughout your core. But if you’re overlooking core stability exercises — moves that help you better control your trunk while moving and in fixed positions — you might experience mobility issues or have lackluster performance in the gym.

The good news? Core stability exercises are easy to mix into your routine. Ahead, physical therapists detail the key benefits of this training and explain why you may be lacking core stability in the first place. Plus, you’ll find a list of eight core stability exercises worth adding to your fitness program.

The Benefits of Core Stability Exercises

To refresh your memory, your core consists of the muscles throughout your trunk, including your rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, transverse abdominis, and erector spinae, among others. Its main purpose: to protect the spine, says Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and founder of Movement Vault. “To do that, you need to have stability in the muscles around your spine, specifically your core,” he explains.

While “core stability” is tough to define, it generally refers to your core’s ability to create enough rigidity to prevent your spine from moving in such a way or to an extent that could cause injury, says Wickham. And in order to create this rigidity, you need to contract your core musculature, which may be done consciously (think: bracing during a heavy squat) or unconsciously in your everyday life (think: when you quickly twist your torso to catch an object falling off the counter), he explains. You may not fully activate your core in those unconscious situations, says Wickham, “but there is some active component to stability — you need to have some amount of muscle firing.”

Improving your ability to control the trunk via core stability exercises has historically been seen as a key element to preventing lower back pain, says Leada Malek, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., S.C.S., a board-certified sports specialist and physical therapist. While core stability training could help fend off discomfort, research hasn’t fully backed up this benefit, and core stability isn’t the only potential contributing factor to lower back pain, says Malek.

Still, ensuring your core stability is up to snuff can help keep tightness at bay in other areas of your body, says Wickham. “If you don't have that stability in your midsection, your body is going to hunt for stability somewhere else,” he notes. “It's going to go to the next joint, either above or below, for stability, and a lot of times, it's the hips. So that can contribute to tight hips, and it’s going to impede some of the range of motion and mobility that you have.”

Aside from keeping your body pain- and injury-free, practicing core stability exercises can boost your performance in the gym and your daily life, says Wickham. Simply put, “the better your ability to activate and control your midsection, the better you're going to be doing anything that involves movement,” says Wickham.

What Causes a Lack of Core Stability?

For most people, a lack of core stability comes down to a lack of varied movement, says Wickham. Between sitting at a desk, on the couch, and in the car, many folks spend a big chunk of their days with their butts planted on a seat and their body propped against a backrest, he says. “When you're using a backrest, your core is like, ‘I don't have to do my job anymore. I'm just going to relax,” he explains. “After, years and years of doing this, not only does your core midsection ‘get weak,’ but you also lose connection with all of these small muscles around the front your midsection and your back. You lose touch with knowing how to engage these muscles when you want to engage them.”

Aside from a sedentary lifestyle, certain injuries (such as those in the back and pelvis), plus a fear of re-establishing old injuries, may contribute to a lack of core stability, says Malek.

The Best Core Stability Exercises

Building up stability throughout your trunk doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, you can work on improving your core stability outside of the gym, says Wickham. First, ditch your back rest to reteach your core how to keep you upright, he suggests. Then, practice diaphragmatic breathing, which helps you activate and better connect with your core musculature, he adds. 

Simply mixing core stability exercises into your typical core-strengthening routine can also help improve your performance and ease discomfort throughout your body, as stability and strength often go hand in hand, says Malek.

Ready to get started? Try practicing these eight movements, suggested and demonstrated by Malek, in addition to your go-to strength-building exercises. These core stability exercises incorporate isometric holds, meaning your muscles are contracting but not actively moving, plus movements that challenge your balance, she says. Aim to perform your favorites two to four times a week, and as you progress, add multiplanar movements (think: the Pallof press, Russian twist, wood chop) to mimic IRL conditions, suggests Malek. Remember: “The goal is learning to control what the entire body's doing at once and minimize excessive movement, so you want to move nice and slow with control,” she says. 

Forearm Plank with Hip Extension

This exercise not only targets your core, but it also builds strength in your posterior chain (the muscles on the backside of your body), says Malek. "The added component of the hip extension challenges stability, powered by the glutes and hamstrings," she explains. 

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with hands stacked directly under shoulders, knees bent and stacked directly under hips, and feet hip-width apart. Lower one forearm down to the floor at a time, elbows in line with shoulders. Plant palms firmly on the floor or create gentle fists.

B. Lift both knees off the floor, step feet back one by one, and straighten legs to come into a forearm plank position, squeezing glutes together and engaging core. Actively push away from the floor and maintain a straight line from head to heels.

C. While holding the plank, lift left foot off the floor and raise leg until foot is in line with or slightly higher that back, keeping hips parallel with the ground. Pause, then lower left foot back to the floor. Repeat on the opposite side.

Side Plank

This core stability exercise challenges your balance, and you'll call on the muscles on the side of your trunk (think: the obliques) to keep your body off the ground, says Malek. Plus, "the glutes are helping to lift the hips from the ground, and the shoulder stabilizers are also at play," she adds. If the move is too difficult, scale back to a modified side plank with your right knee resting on the ground.

A. Lie on right side of body, right elbow resting on the floor in line with right shoulder, both legs extended out to left side, and feet stacked. Place left hand on left hip.

B. Engage core, ground through right elbow and feet, and lift hips and knees off the floor. Gaze forward and maintain a straight line from head to heels.

Side Plank with Hip Abduction

This core stability exercise primarily targets your obliques, as well as your shoulders, glutes, and hip abductors, says Malek.

A. Lie on right side of body and right elbow resting on the floor in line with right shoulder. Extend left leg out to left side and bend right knee to a 90-degree angle. Place left hand on left hip.

B. Engage core, ground through right elbow and feet, and lift hips off the floor. Keeping right knee planted on the floor and left foot flext, lift left leg in the air so it's in line with left hip. Gaze forward and maintain a straight line from head to left heel.

Kneeling Paloff Press

"The Palloff press is a great anti-rotation core exercise that can help build core stability with dynamic movements," says Malek. "The tall kneeling position offers a unique challenge due to the base of support and the need to maintain an upright position with the hips and knees — without the use of the feet."

A. Attach a long-loop resistance band to a secure anchor point in your workout space (such as a closed door or a squat rack) and kneel on the floor perpendicular to the anchor point. Sit closer to the anchor point for lower resistance and further from the anchor point for more resistance.

B. With knees hip-width apart and core engaged, rotate torso toward the anchor point and grasp the end of the resistance band with both hands. Use core to rotate torso away from the anchor point to face forward, hands directly in front of chest. This is the starting position.

C. Extend arms in front of chest to press hands away from body. The motion should be smooth and controlled with no momentum. Resist the urge to twist torso toward the anchor point.

D. Slowly return to starting position, ending with elbows tucked alongside ribs. Hands should remain at chest height throughout the movement.

Half-Kneeling Paloff Press

This variation of the Paloff press features a narrow base of support to further test your core stability, says Malek.

A. Attach a long-loop resistance band to a secure anchor point in your workout space (such as a closed door or a squat rack) and kneel on the floor perpendicular to the anchor point. Place left foot flat on the floor, knee bent at 90 degrees, and keep right shin flat on the floor. Sit closer to the anchor point for lower resistance and further from the anchor point for more resistance.

B. With right knee and left foot hip-width apart and core engaged, rotate torso toward the anchor point and grasp the end of the resistance band with both hands. Use core to rotate torso away from the anchor point to face forward, hands directly in front of chest. This is the starting position.

C. Extend arms in front of chest to press hands away from body. The motion should be smooth and controlled with no momentum. Resist the urge to twist torso toward the anchor point.

D. Slowly return to starting position, ending with elbows tucked alongside ribs. Hands should remain at chest height throughout the movement.

Bird Dog

This dynamic core stability exercise tests your trunk's anti-rotation and anti-extension capacity while also strengthening the back, glutes, and scapular muscles, says Malek. "The intent is to keep the back as straight and stable as possible while the limbs are moving," she notes. "You can alternate sides or work one side then switch."

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with hands stacked directly under shoulders, knees bent and stacked directly under hips, and feet hip-width apart.

B. Engage core, lift left arm and right leg off the floor, and raise until parallel with the ground, forming a straight line from fingertips to heel.

C. Pause, then slowly lower left arm and right leg to the floor. Repeat on the opposite side.

Prone Extension

This core stability exercise works double-duty as an endurance-builder for your back and shoulders, says Malek. As you lift your chest off the floor, remember to contract the glutes and gaze at the floor. "This will reduce excessive extension from the lumbar region and encourage more from the entire posterior chain," she notes.

A. Lie on the floor face-down with legs straight, tips of toes touching the floor, and hands placed next to ears, palms facing the floor.

B. Keeping neck neutral and gaze toward the floor, engage back, core, and glutes, and slowly lift chest a few inches off the floor.

C. Pause at the top for five seconds, then slowly lower chest back to the starting position.

Dead Bug with Overhead Pull

This leveled-up dead bug makes for an ideal dynamic core stability exercise that particularly improves overhead movements, says Malek. "The added weight makes it harder to keep the low back and lower ribs from rising, which further challenges anti-extension," she adds.

A. Start in reverse table-top position, withh knees bent at a 90-degree angle and stacked over hips and ankles in line with knees. Extend both arms straight overhead in line with shoulders, holding one dumbbell with both hands. Keep back planted flat on the ground and core engaged.

B. Reach both arms back over head toward the wall behind you and extend right leg forward, lowering leg toward the floor but keeping it elevated.

C. Slowly bring arms and right leg back to the reverse table-top position at the same time. Repeat with the opposite leg.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles