Unleash Your Core Strength: Essential Exercises for a Strong and More-Defined Midsection
Apr 07, 2023 by Jessica Baron
If you experience back pain while trying to pick things up, reach for items, or even while sitting at your desk, your core muscles - which are your foundation - might need some attention.
Targeting the core is a matter of choosing the right exercises. And while lots of us groan at the mention of core-strengthening workouts, or think they’re just for people who want six-pack abs, the truth is we all need a strong core to stay healthy and mobile. Below, we have some great suggestions on how to do core training at home, even if you're a beginner.
Why We Need a Strong Core
Our core muscles are crucial to nearly all of our movements. A strong core helps us maintain proper posture, prevents back pain, and improves balance and stability. As Harvard Health notes, "The strength and coordination of these muscles is important not only for sports and fitness routines but also for daily life — for example, reaching up to a shelf, lifting a child, or sponging a spot off the floor."
A strong core also helps us maintain proper form and technique during exercise, reducing our risk of injury.
A weak core can make us tired faster or bring on back pain during everyday movements or fitness activities, like running.
What Are the Core Muscles?
The "core" actually refers to a large group of muscles located in the midsection of the body. These muscles support proper movement and function and help stabilize the spine and pelvis.
The major muscles of the core include:
- The Rectus Abdominis: Your "six-pack" muscles that run down the front of the abdomen.
- The Transverse Abdominis: Deeper muscles in the abdomen that wrap around the spine for stability.
- The Internal and External Obliques: Located on the sides of the abdomen to help with twisting and rotation.
- The Erector Spinae: Found on each side of the spine to straighten and rotate the back.
- The Multifidus: Located between the vertebrae to stabilize it.
- Pelvic Floor Muscles: Located at the bottom of the pelvis.
Best Core Exercises for Home Workouts That Don't Require Equipment
An at-home core workout routine doesn't need to involve equipment, though it certainly helps when you're trying to build muscle.
Here are a few exercises you can do from the comfort of your living room without equipment. But remember, these exercises are most productive when you actively engage your core while performing them.
1. Bench Knee-Ups
Why: This exercise strengthens core muscles by requiring you to stabilize your lower back and pelvis while lifting your legs.
Muscles targeted: Bench knee-ups primarily target the rectus abdominis (the muscle responsible for creating "six-pack" abs). This exercise also engages the hip flexors, obliques, transverse abdominis muscles, and erector spinae muscles.
- Sit on the edge of a bench or chair with your hands gripping the sides.
- Lean back slightly and lift your feet off the floor a few inches.
- Now, lift your knees up toward your chest.
- Engage your abs throughout.
- Slowly lower your feet back to the starting position (hovering a few inches off the floor).
- Repeat. (You can straighten your legs for a more intense workout.)
Why: Plank is good for your core because it requires so many of your muscles to work together to maintain a stable position and proper posture.
Muscles targeted: Plank engages the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, erector spinae, obliques, and glutes.
- Start in a push-up position with your palms and toes shoulder-width apart. (Keep your wrists under your shoulders to avoid wrist pain; if wrist pain is too much, you can also do this on your forearms.)
- Now, squeeze your abs, glutes, and thighs (this is what it means to "engage your core" in this position). Your body should form a straight line from head to heels.
- Keep your neck in a neutral position by looking at the floor. Avoid arching or rounding your back. Your posture is key here, so you may need a mirror to ensure you're aligned.
- Hold the position for as long as you can, aiming for at least 30 seconds to a minute.
- Lower your knees to the ground and rest for a few seconds before repeating.
Why: Crunches can give you a more defined midsection and improve your overall core stability to reduce your risk of lower back pain.
Muscles targeted: Crunches primarily target the rectus abdominis, obliques, and hip flexors. The rectus abdominis helps flex the spine.
- Lie on your back and bend your knees. Set your feet flat on the ground at hip-width distance apart.
- Place your hands behind your head or cross them over your chest.
- Contract your abdominal muscles to engage your core and exhale while you lift your head, shoulders, and upper back off the floor. (If your hands are behind your head, be careful not to push your head forward.)
- Keep your neck relaxed with your chin pointed towards the ceiling.
- Inhale while you slowly lower your upper body back down to the starting position.
4. Mountain Climber
Why: This full-body exercise involves some cardio with your core workout. The exercise can be slowed down to suit all fitness levels.
Muscles targeted: Core muscles like rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and obliques. It also works the deltoids, triceps, quadriceps, and glutes.
- Start in push-up position, placing your hands directly under your shoulders. Your body should be in a straight line from head to your heels (just like plank). You can also place your hands on an elevated surface like a bench if you need a modification.
- Bring your right knee towards your chest while keeping your left leg straight, and then quickly switch legs to bring your left knee towards your chest while straightening your right leg.
- Continue alternating between each leg. Move quickly, but always maintain good form and keep your core engaged.
Home Core Exercises with Speediance
5. Kneeling Cable Row
Why: This effective full-body core exercise helps improve posture and develop upper-body stability.
Muscles targeted: The primary targets are the rhomboids, trapezius, and latissimus dorsi of the upper back. However, the erector spinae is also engaged tostabilize thespine and maintain posture.
- Set the cable pulley to a low position and attach the triceps rope.
- Kneel down facing the cable machine and grasp the rope handles with an overhand grip.
- Extend your arms and engage your core.
- Pull the handles toward your body, keeping your elbows close to your sides until your arms are straight.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement before slowly releasing back to your starting position.
6. Standing Horizontal Chop
Why: The exercise improves your rotational strength and stabilizes your core muscles to help you perform activities that require twisting or turning.
Muscles targeted: The primary muscles targeted are the obliques, but it also engages the rectus abdominis and erector spinae muscles.
- Set the cable at shoulder height and attach a single handle to it.
- Stand perpendicular to the machine with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent.
- Hold the handle with both hands in front of your chest with your arms out straight.
- Now, slowly rotate your torso to the side away from the cable, keeping your feet and hips facing forward.
- Then, slowly rotate back to the starting position.
7. Cable High-to-Low Chop
Why: This targets both the core and the muscles of the upper body and back for more well-rounded exercise.
Muscles targeted: The main target is the obliques, but your rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis will be tested, along with your erector spinae muscles.
- Set the cable at a high position and attach a single handle to it. Start with a light amount of weight if you are a beginner to avoid injury.
- Stand perpendicular to the machine, placing your feet shoulder-width apart. Put a slight bend in your knees and engage your core.
- Now, grab the handle with both hands and pull it across your body in a diagonal motion, ending down near your outward-facing hip.
- Be sure to keep your arms straight and pivot on your back foot as you twist your torso.
- Slowly return to the starting position.
8. Side Plank Cable Pull
Why: This one is challenging, but it's great for core stability, balance, and overall upper body strength.
Muscles targeted: It primarily targets the obliques and the transverse abdominis. But you'll also feel this in your shoulders and back since you'll be engaging the rhomboids, trapezius, and latissimus dorsi.
- Begin in a side plank position, with your elbow on the ground and your body in a straight line from head to foot. The cable should be at shoulder level.
- Grasp the cable handle with your top hand, keeping your arm bent at the elbow at a 90-degree angle.
- Engage your core and pull the cable handle forward, bringing your elbow towards your hip.
- Slowly release the cable handle back to the starting position over your body.
9. Low-to-High Cable Chop
Why: This exercise helps improve your rotational power and stability.
Muscles targeted: It primarily targets the obliques but also engages the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and erector spinae.
- Attach the cable at knee height and adjust the weight to suit your fitness level.
- Stand perpendicular to the cable machine with feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent.
- Grab the handle with both hands and bring it up and across your body, above the opposite shoulder. Pivot your back foot as you twist your torso.
- Keep your arms straight throughout the movement, and be sure to engage your core muscles.
- Slowly return to the starting position.