Building a Functional Core: The Best Exercises for Your Core Training Progression

The core is a perpetual focus in the world of exercise.

However, while countless athletes have added core workouts into their training, not everyone knows all the specifics that go into a true core training progression.

Part of the issue is that many people only associate the core with their abdominal muscles, when in reality, the core comprises muscles from your chest down to your legs.

And the other issue is that your complete core encapsulates so many parts of your body that your training can include such a wide variety of exercises — and choosing the most relevant ones to your specific training can be a difficult process.

So, let’s take a moment to understand what elements go into a true core progression, and what exercises can allow for a well-rounded training program.

Steps to Build a Functional Core

The first step to any effective training program is muscle activation. That is, making sure your muscles know how to turn on so you can properly recruit them during activity.

Not everyone realizes that muscle activation is a skill you can (and should) train. While it’s technically an ability we all have, certain lifestyle habits, like sitting for long periods of time, can cause our muscles to “forget” how to properly activate when we need them most.

As you prime your muscles for activation, you’ll also be practicing some static stability work to make sure your muscles are properly stabilizing your spine. This is essential to both protect the spine from excessive loading, as well as ensuring your abdominal muscles are staying fully engaged.

You’ll then get to take that activation and stability and apply it to the first initial stages of strength training, which will include a combination of dynamic stability, muscular endurance, and some introductory strength work. With your muscles properly activated and engaged, your endurance will help them stay active all throughout, and you can apply that skill of stability into some more functional movement.

The further your progress, the more challenge you get to add, whether that be in the form of extra weight, increased resistance, or more complex dynamic motion.

However, as with any new training progression, it’s imperative that you pay attention to how your body responds to your new workload. There are a handful of common symptoms that should alert you to stop and reassess the intensity of your exercise. If you experience any numbness or tingling, lightheadedness, dizziness, shortness of breath, or increased local pain (particularly in the pelvis or saddle region), make sure you cut your workout short and give yourself ample time to recover.

The Best Core Exercise Progression

Here’s the part you’ve been waiting for, right?

Keep in mind that this exact training program may not meet all your particular training needs or goals, but we’ve laid out the bones for a solid starting point. As you read through, you’ll likely notice that many of the exercises require similar types of muscle activation, stability, and strength, just at varying levels of difficulty (for a true progression!).

When it comes to honing your own program, make sure you not only implement a true progression of exercises, but also a hearty variety of workouts based on what muscles or movements you need to target. Variety is key for well-rounded skill development.

Phase 1 — Beginner Core Exercises

The very first chunk of workouts are predominantly focused on activating the proper muscles and ensuring that they provide adequate stabilization for your spine. Because you’re dialing into the basics, most of these exercises will be low intensity with limited to no added load or resistance.

The duration of your activation phase depends on how “dormant” your muscles are; most people have to spend several weeks to truly ensure that they’re channeling the right motor patterns, muscle recruitment, and static stability. 

#1. Deadbug with Alternating Arms and Legs

  1. Laying on your back, brace your core in a neutral position and elevate both your legs and arms at a 90-degree angle.
  2. Lower one arm and the opposite leg downwards in a slow, controlled motion. Once you reach full extension, return to your starting position and repeat on the other side. 
  3. As you move your limbs, make sure your rib cage doesn’t flare outwards or lift off the ground — if it does, this is a sign that your core isn’t staying fully engaged through the movement.

Primary Benefit: core muscle activation, lumbar stability.

#2. Bird Dog

  1. Start in a quadruped position (all fours) with hands placed under the shoulders and knees under the hips.
  2. Find your neutral spine position (i.e., a slight, natural curve in the low back) and engage your core.
  3. Begin by lifting just one arm at a time, focusing on keeping stability in the shoulders and low back. Be sure to avoid rotating the shoulder or dropping one side lower than the other.
  4. Next, apply this same motion to your legs — lift one leg at a time, stabilizing at the hip and ensuring that you don’t move out of that neutral spine position. (It’s common to arch the back to extend their leg.)
  5. Once you get comfortable with the individualized stability practice, repeat the same motions but with one arm and its opposite leg simultaneously.

Primary Benefit: core muscle activation; shoulder, back, and hip stability.

#3. Sideplank with Clamshell

  1. Begin in a side plank from a knee position: keep your elbow underneath the shoulder, and push through your knees to raise your hip up.
  2. Keep your pelvis neutral and hips positioned so that your body is a straight line from your shoulders to your knees.
  3. Elevate your top knee by rotating your leg outward, pivoting at the heel (careful to keep the hips pressed forward).
  4. Hold this position while keeping your core engaged, aligned, and stabilized.

Primary Benefit: core muscle activation, lumbar stability.

#4. Squat with Pallof Press

  1. Sit into a partial-squat position, keeping your chest forward and hips back. Holding the end of a resistance band anchored to a wall or other structure, position your hands on the midline of your body.
  2. Push your hands straight out in front of your chest in a controlled motion, and bring your hands back to your chest without allowing the band to pull you left or right. (That is, make sure you’re not rotating at the torso or hips.)
  3. Focus on keeping your core, glutes, and hips active in order to remain facing forward. 

Primary Benefits: glute and hip muscle activation, anti-rotational stability.

#5. Superman

  1. Using a bosu ball (or a foam roller and pillow), rest on your stomach and turn your feet outwards to promote better glute engagement. (This will prevent your body from relying on your hamstrings or other leg muscles instead of the glutes.)
  2. Squeeze through your glute muscles and press your hips into the ball. With enough effort, you’ll experience a slight lift through your upper body without having to overextend the lumbar spine.
  3. Engage your transverse abdominis muscle to achieve optimal lumbar stability. (We often use the following visualization technique: imagine a string is attached to your belly button. To engage the muscle, pull that string upwards towards the spine.)
  4. Bring your arms back to activate your lower trapezius muscle and achieve slight thoracic extension. Make sure your lumbar spine stays neutral all throughout. You shouldn’t be able to see any excessive curving, nor should you feel any pinching or pressure in that area.

Primary Benefit: prolonged muscle activation for core stabilizers and safe lumbar alignment.

#6. Straight Arm Pull-Down

  1. Anchor a resistance band to the top of a doorway and hold both ends.
  2. Straighten both your arms above your head, stick your chest out, and pull your shoulder blades back and down.
  3. Hold this position as you pull your hands down to your pockets, keeping your arms straight. Squeeze your shoulder blades together to help achieve this motion.
  4. At the bottom of the pull, give an extra lift to your chest, and an extra squeeze at the shoulder blades. Retain this muscle contraction as you return your arms back to the starting position in a slow, controlled motion.
  5. Avoid any lifting of the shoulders or bending at the elbows.

Primary Benefit: abdominal and shoulder muscle activation, isometric core stability.

Phase 2 — Intermediate Core Exercises

Once you’ve nailed the foundational skills for muscle engagement, you’ll transition to more challenging exercises (though they won’t necessarily be much higher intensity). Some exercises may implement increased loading or resistance, but for the most part, you’ll be focused on retaining that same muscle engagement through dynamic movement, as well as building your muscular endurance and initial core strength.

(So, if you see some similarities between these exercises and the previous ones, you’d be right! Noticing those parallels is often the mark of a steady, progressive program.)

#1. Oblique Anterior Sling in Lunge

  1. Start in a lunge position and hold a resistance band anchored to a doorway.
  2. Keep your hips extended and your tailbone tucked in to achieve ideal spinal alignment.
  3. Engage your core as you rotate diagonally against the pull of the resistance band. Maintain deliberate, controlled motion as you rotate outwards and back to the starting position. You should feel your oblique muscles doing the bulk of the work.

Primary Benefit: dynamic stability in abdominal muscles.

#2. Kneeling Anti-Sidebend Band Press

  1. In a kneeling position, hold a resistance band that’s been anchored to a wall or other structure.
  2. Maintain a neutral spine and engage your core muscles, then press the band directly up and overhead so your arms are fully straightened out.
  3. Actively work against the pull of that band, ensuring that both your arms and torso remain fully braced throughout the vertical motion.

Primary Benefit: dynamic, anti-sidebend stability.

#3. Bear Crawl

  1. Start in a quadruped position, hands under the shoulders and knees under the hips. Establish ample stability in the shoulders while just slightly lifting your knees off the ground.
  2. Focus on engaging your core to stabilize the low back.
  3. Slowly progress forwards, backwards, or sideways, one limb at a time. (Some people find it helpful to visualize a glass of water sitting right on the lower back, as this can help you retain that optimal alignment and stability even as you move. Plus, this will ensure that you’re taking your time.)

Primary Benefit: core, scapular, and hip stability through dynamic and directional movement.

#4. Sideplank

  1. Start in a side-lying position, keeping your elbow beneath your shoulder and your hips stacked on top of each other. Make sure your body makes a straight line through your shoulders, hips, legs, and feet. (Keep your hips forward, otherwise you’ll be out of alignment!)
  2. Push through the elbow and drive through your feet to lift your hips up. You should feel those oblique and gluteus medius muscles working to keep you suspended in that position.
  3. Extend your top arm straight above you, retracting your shoulder blades and sticking the chest out.
  4. Brace your core and hold this position.

Primary Benefit: building muscular strength and endurance, recruiting obliques and hip abductors.

#5. Plank Swiss Ball Roll Extension

  1. Start in a plank position with your forearms on top of a Swiss ball, retaining a neutral spine and bracing your core. (Because you’ll be more elevated than a standard plank, it’s often helpful to include a bit of posterior pelvic tilt to maintain that spinal alignment.)
  2. Slowly roll the ball forward (not by much!), then roll it back to your starting position. Make sure your back doesn’t sag inwards as you roll back and forth.
  3. Dial into that core engagement to ensure ample stability and protection of the spine.

Primary Benefit: building muscular strength and endurance with core stability

#6. Sideplank Hip Abduction

  1. Start in a full side plank position with your elbow beneath the shoulder.
  2. Push through the elbow into the ground to lift your hip up, keeping the body in a straight line from the shoulder through your ankle.
  3. Tighten your abdominal muscles and squeeze the gluteus medius muscle to lift the top leg into the air. Kick the leg slightly back as you extend it upwards and rotate just enough that your toes point up at the ceiling.
  4. Hold this position to really target the gluteus medius

Primary Benefit: targeting endurance and strength in gluteus medius muscle.

Phase 3 — Advanced Core Exercises

By this point in your training, you should have sufficient muscular activation and stability through both static and dynamic exercises — and that makes you more prepared to take on functional  movements.

And once you’ve built up enough practice with that functional stability, you can up the ante with more complex exercises: higher loading, increased weight or resistance, multiple planes of motion, the whole shebang!

(Since this training phase is pretty advanced, the specifics behind your exercises may look different depending on your long-term goals. The exercises we’re providing here are designed for a generally well-rounded progression that tackles the many facets of core functionality.)

#1. Squat Curl Press

  1. Start in a standard squat position, spreading the floor and pushing the band apart.
  2. Ascend out of the squat position and stand up straight, transitioning smoothly into a bicep curl. Keep your core active, chest lifted, rib cage closed, and elbows bent at a 45-degree angle and tucked into your sides. 
  3. Drive your arms up from the bicep curl into an overhead press at a moderate pace.
  4. Control the dumbbells as you bring your arms back down to the bicep curl, then back into the original squat position.

Primary Benefit: functional core stability with increased weight, loading, and dynamic motion.

#2. Ab Roller

  1. Settle into a quadruped position with an ab roller (or barbell with weights) in both hands.
  2. Engage your core and keep your back flat.
  3. Extend your arms in front of your in a controlled forward roll, rolling as far out as possible without losing that stable back alignment. Slowly roll back to the starting position.
  4. If you’re unable to roll into full extension, only more through the range that you can maintain control over. (Distance is less important than deliberate control and core stability.)

Primary Benefit: retaining lumbar stability and core strength through dynamic motion.

#3. Kettlebell Hip Flexor Lift

  1. Stand with one foot planted on a step (or box), and the other foot “hooked” into the handle of a kettlebell resting on the ground.
  2. Bear your weight on the stance leg and keep your abs and hips engaged, staying tall.
  3. Focus on maintaining hip extension in your stance leg while pulling the kettlebell leg straight up into a 90-degree angle at the knee.
  4. Control your leg up and down on a 3-4 count to really recruit muscle strength and endurance while under load.

Primary Benefit: building hip flexor strength and endurance under increased load.

#4. Landmine Oblique Twist

  1. Hold a landmine press in front of your chest with both hands.
  2. Brace your abdominal muscles and keep them tight.
  3. Slowly twist through your torso to rotate your shoulders and bring the landmine press side-to-side as far as you can reach. (The farther out to the side you can rotate, the more core activation you’ll feel.)
  4. Maintain that controlled motion and core bracing through the full range of motion.

Primary Benefit: targeting oblique muscles with additional weight and loading.

Get to Training!

And there you have it — the basic building blocks to your progression, and a host of exercises to go along with it.

We’ve noticed that some people find it slightly frustrating that they have to start with low intensity workouts, but remember: the key to successful core training is that progression. If you don’t designate ample time for activation or endurance training, you run the risk of overworking your muscles with too much intensity or load.

Progressive exercise is absolutely essential in order to truly gain strength. So, be sure to exercise patience alongside your actual workouts — mastering one training facet will allow you to gain the most benefit from the next phase, and from the program as a whole.

By Dr. Dana Lindberg DPT CSCS

As a sprinter and long-jumper turned doctor of physical therapy, Dr. Lindberg knows full well the importance of the mental component in competition, and looks forward to assisting athletes in achieving their absolute best. In his time with the Samuel Merritt University’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program, he conducted biomechanics research alongside faculty members to investigate the influences of different footwear on running force transmission.

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