Sure, “a sculpted stomach” or “six-pack abs” are common goals. But the fact is, a strong core—the muscles that make up everything from the tops of the shoulders to the bottom of the pelvis—is much more important than simply having visible definition. (In fact, it’s entirely possible to have a very strong core, without those six-pack lines, due to things like body fat percentage, genetics, eating habits, or where you are in your menstrual cycle).
“A strong core is a balanced one, where low abs, upper abs, obliques, and your back muscles all work together to provide stability, safe movement patterns, and strength,” explains certified personal trainer Cameron Norsworthy, trainer at Equinox and Yoga Room NYC. “Having a strong core means that you can support your daily life (in and outside of the gym) with confidence and comfort, and without pain or risk of injury,” adds Rachel Turner, founder of Strong Chicks Rock.
So what does it take to build a strong core, exactly? Below, Norsworthy, Turner, and seven other women–some who work out for a living (because why wouldn’t you get the scoop from a pro?) and some who don’t–share their go-to core-building moves.
Hollow Hold Kettlebell or Dumbbell Press
“I’m a full-time Strongman competitor and part-time rugby player, so for me having a strong core is all about stability. My go-to move for core strength is something called Hollow Hold Straight Out. When you’re ready to begin, lie on your back and squeeze everything tight. Press your lower back into the ground, and slightly lift your legs and upper back so that your shoulder blades are off the floor. From there, engage your abs and use one arm to press a five- to 10-pound dumbbell or kettlebell away from you for about five to eight reps, then switch arms. This core movement will help develop overall core strength and, more importantly, stability.”
—Summer Barnes, Strongman competitor and rugby player
“Having a strong core is everything. Forget aesthetics, forget having a six pack. The core is called a ‘core’ for a reason: It’s the center of all movement. As a CrossFit coach, I ask my athletes, ‘How can you be strong and secure in any movement if your foundation is weak?’ The answer: Best to get the building blocks in place! One of my favorite exercises for core strength is the Hip Thrust. To do it, lie flat on your back, bend your knees at a 90-degree angle with your feet on the floor, then thrust your hips off the floor and push your heels into the ground. Then, lower back down. That’s one rep. To make it harder, don’t allow your butt to reach the floor between reps; instead, let it hover above the ground about an inch or two. Trust me, a few sets of 10 to 20 reps will get the lower abs burning real good.”
—Adele Jackson-Gibson, CrossFit L1 trainer and fitness writer
“To be completely honest, I have a love-hate relationship with this exercise. I love it because it’s absolutely killer for building a resilient core, improving postural imbalances, and strengthening both the pelvis and hips (which is why I add it into my own routine and to the routines of my athletes as well). But I hate it because it’s really, really hard! Here’s how to do it: Get on all fours like you’re about to crawl with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Push the floor away from you with your hands and reach your back to the ceiling while tucking your hips and pelvis. Bring your toes up underneath you, and bring your knees about an inch off the floor. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds while taking full yet slow inhales and exhales throughout the movement.”
—Devon Day Moretti, personal trainer
Half-Kneeling Pallof Press
“For core strength, my all-time favorite exercise is the Half-Kneeling Pallof Press. To try it, start on the ground in a half-kneeling position, and grab a cable or resistance band that’s looped around a squat rig or column. Grab onto the handle with your outside hand, then wrap your inside hand around it, too. When you’re ready to begin, press from the midline of the body, so right from your chest, and extend your arms out, straight in front of you. Pause for two seconds, then bring it back in. That’s one rep! I typically go for 10 to 12 reps.”
—Rachel Turner, founder of Strong Chicks Rock
“It is important for me to have a strong core, not just for heavy lifts but also to protect myself for the future, especially when having kids. I want to be able to recover faster post-pregnancy. My favorite core exercise is a compound movement that makes you engage that core every single time you get under that weight! To try it, simply put the plates (or no plates, if you’re a beginner!) on the barbell, and then get that barbell on your shoulders. To begin, pull down on the bar to engage your lats, squeeze your core, and sit your hips back while keeping all of your weight in your heels. Then, explode back to the starting position. That’s one rep.”
—Alexa Felipe, CrossFit athlete with a BS in exercise physiology
“As a CrossFit athlete who does aerial yoga, a strong core keeps me safe during anything from lifting weights to balancing on somebody else’s palm. My favorite ab exercise for my core is the V-Up, which is an exercise I started as a little kid in gymnastics and still love to this day. It engages your entire core from upper abs to those hard to target lower abs. Basically, you start lying down on the ground and then simultaneously ‘fold’ your body into a V shape by bringing your toes and legs up toward the ceiling and lifting your shoulders and reaching your hands to your toes. Trust me, you’ll feel this one in as little as three or four reps!”
—Amy Winn, recreational CrossFitter and aerial yogi
“A strong core is important for me for two reasons. First, it helps me keep good posture during a long day of coaching. And second, it keeps me safe during my own barbell-centric training. I love Hollow Holds and Hollow Rocks because honestly, nothing makes my core work harder. To try it, lie on your back. Keep your lower back flat on the ground and raise your shoulder blades and legs. Think about pushing your belly button toward your spine as you do this. Ideally, you’ll keep your legs together and point your toes to the ceiling, while your arms stay locked over head. Hold this position. That’s a Hollow Hold! To make it harder, practice rocking back and forth, which is called a Hollow Rock!”
—Stephany Bolivar, CrossFit L1 trainer and certified personal trainer
“Training all layers and angles of the abdominals is vital. I find that I get the most immediate definition in my abs when I focus on my obliques. My go-to move? A crunch variation. To try it, stack your knees together. Drop them both over to one side, bring your hands behind your head, and crunch your head, neck, and shoulders to the center. Start with 20 to 25 per side. The constant rotation in your spine engages both internal and external obliques!”
—Cameron Norsworthy, certified personal trainer and fitness instructor
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Dead Bug Pallof Press
“The Dead Bug Pallof Press is a hybrid of my two favorite core exercises. This movement trains the core for maximal performance both in and out of the gym. The primary responsibility of the core muscles is to stabilize the spine, particularly when the arms and legs are doing their own thing. It’s responsible for keeping your back healthy and your body from crumpling in half when you’re walking down the street or cranking out squats to overhead presses. Meanwhile, the Pallof press develops anti-rotational core strength, another huge component to stability and spinal health. Put the two moves together and you have the consummate ‘I’m showing my body so much love right now’ core exercise.”