When it comes to building core strength, a lot of fitness trainers favor isolation and floor-based abs exercises. This makes a certain amount of sense because such movements let you target the core muscles directly and in a stable environment.
Consequently, you are free to focus on pushing your muscles to their limit, which should enhance strength and hypertrophy.
However, most floor and isolation core exercises have minimal carryover to athletic and everyday activities.
In short, they fail to build useable strength. You can read more about functional training to build real-world strength here.
After all, other than sitting up in bed in the morning, how often do you do anything like crunches or sit-ups out in the real world? I’ll bet big bucks that the answer is not very often!
That’s why, as a personal trainer with over 30 years of professional experience, I prefer to prescribe more functional core exercises to my clients. Invariably, these movements are performed standing and involve not just the core but multiple additional muscle groups.
These exercises build useable core strength that will make many of the activities of daily living easier and potentially safer. In addition, functional core exercises can enhance athletic performance, transferring well to many sports (1).
In this article, I reveal my seven favorite exercises for building functional core strength, all tried and tested by my army of personal training clients.
Before I reveal my favorite functional core exercises, let me share some basic core training principles. This information will help explain why my chosen exercises are so effective and how they’ll help you achieve your fitness and physique goals. Learn more about what is functional strength training.
It’s a common misconception that the words core and abs are interchangeable. While the abs ARE part of your core, the core actually comprises several additional muscles. These muscles work together to stabilize your spine and produce a multitude of movements.
The main muscles of the core are:
Rectus abdominus – located on the front of your abdomen, the rectus abdominus is your six-pack muscle. Its functions are flexion and lateral flexion of the spine, and it also helps compress your abdominal contents, contributing to intra-abdominal pressure.
Obliques – the obliques are essentially your waist muscles. There are two oblique muscles on each side of your midsection (internal and external), and both are involved in lateral flexion and rotation of your spine.
Transverse abdominis – known as the TVA for short, this muscle encircles your abdomen like a weightlifting belt. When contracted, this muscle squeezes inward to create intra-abdominal pressure or IAP. Subsequently, this pressure helps support and stabilize your spine.
Multifidus – one of your lower back muscles, the multifidus is primarily a spinal stabilizer. However, it also plays a role in spinal extension, rotation, and lateral flexion.
Erector spinae – the erector spinae is a group of three muscles running up either spine of your vertebral column. Its main functions are extension and lateral extension of the spine.
While all of these muscles are involved in dynamic movements, such as flexion and extension, they are also critical stabilizers. In other words, they work to prevent unwanted movement of the spine. As such, some functional core exercises involve large movements, while others are isometric or stationary.
Benefits of Functional Core Training
Why should you drop crunches and sit-ups from your workouts and start doing exercises for useable core strength? Let’s discuss!
Improved athletic performance – your core is the bridge that links your upper body with your lower body. As such, it plays a critical role in force transference.
For example, lifting objects off the floor is predominately a lower body activity. After all, most of the effort comes from your legs. However, if you are holding something heavy, you must transfer the force from your legs into your upper body.
Conversely, a weak core means your midsection could collapse, and the force generated by your legs fails to reach whatever object you are holding. This is both inefficient and could also lead to injury. Subsequently, if your lower back rounds during squats or deadlifts, weak core muscles are the likely cause.
Better posture – posture is the alignment of joints. Good posture puts minimal stress on your muscles, bones, and connective tissue. In contrast, poorly aligned joints resulting in poor posture can cause unwanted muscle tension and joint wear and tear.
Strong core muscles, especially the TVA, multifidus, and erector spinae, make maintaining good posture easier, both when you are sitting and standing and during dynamic movements.
Reduced risk of injury – unwanted spinal movements can cause injuries. For example, if you are pushed or pulled out of good posture, e.g., during a tackle in a football game, you could damage the associated tissues. A strong core means more stability and a reduced risk of injury. Functional core training is also an effective intervention for back pain (2).
A better-looking midsection – we have a saying in fitness: form follows function. In other words, if you train a certain way, you’ll look a certain way, too. Functional core exercises aren’t designed to give you a better-looking midsection, but that’s what will happen. Therefore, the more physically capable your core is, the more aesthetically pleasing it will become.
In contrast, most conventional abs exercises are all about improving appearance but won’t necessarily improve function. Therefore, it makes sense to include functional core exercises in your workouts so you can look AND perform better.
The Top Exercises for Building Core Strength
Do you want to develop a core that’s strong, capable, and looks good, too? These are my seven favorite exercises for building usable core strength!
1. Stability Ball Dead Bug
While I mostly avoid prescribing floor exercises for core training, the stability ball dead bug is the exception. This exercise teaches you how to stabilize your core while moving your arms and legs. As such, it’s a prerequisite for the more demanding exercises that follow. Therefore, you should master this exercise before trying any of the other movements in this article.
How to do it:
- Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet on the floor. Press your lower back into the floor – a posterior pelvic tilt.
- Place a stability ball against your legs and hold it in place with your extended arms. Lift your legs so your thighs and arms are perpendicular to the floor.
- Keeping the ball stationary, extend one leg and the opposite arm. Keep your lower back pressed into the floor.
- Return to the starting position and then switch arms/legs.
- Continue for the required number of reps.
- End your set when you cannot keep your lower back pressed into the floor.
- Increase anterior core activation by actively pushing against the ball.
- Breathe in time with your movements. Do not hold your breath.
2. Pallof Press
The Pallof press was invented by physical therapist John Pallof. This is an anti-rotation exercise where you use your core to resist lateral forces. Performed standing and with an intense arm action, this is the epitome of a functional core exercise.
How to do it:
- Attach a D-shaped handle to a shoulder-high cable machine. Hold the handle in both hands in front of your chest. Stand sideways onto the weight stack. Brace your core.
- Step away from the weight stack to load the cable.
- Extend your arms in front of you. Feel how the tension on your core muscles increases as you lengthen the lever.
- Bring your hands back to your chest and repeat.
- Switch sides and do the same number of reps facing the opposite way.
- Vary the position of your arms to hit your core from different angles.
- You can also do this exercise in a half-kneeling position.
- Training at home? Replicate this exercise with a resistance band.
3. Plank Pull Across
Planks are a very popular core exercise. However, for many people, they’re too easy to be effective. The plank pull across increases both the load and the stability demand for your core, making it a worthy addition to any functional core workout.
How to do it:
- Adopt the high plank or push-up position with a dumbbell behind one hand. Brace your core, tense your legs, and make sure your body is perfectly straight.
- Reach under your body and grab the dumbbell. Pull it beneath you and place it on the floor next to your hand.
- Next, reach across with the opposite arm and grab the dumbbell again.
- Continue pulling the dumbbell from side to side for the prescribed number of reps or duration.
- The further you place the weight outside your hand, the more challenging this exercise becomes.
- You can also do this exercise with a kettlebell, water bottle, small medicine ball, etc.
- Drive your supporting hand into the floor to maximize core engagement.
4. Renegade Row
The renegade row is another superior plank progression that builds functional core strength. Lifting and shifting one arm at a time means you’ll need to work extra hard to keep your body stable. Consequently, you should feel this exercise in every muscle in the front of your body.
How to do it:
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand and adopt the high plank or push-up position. Brace your core and tense your legs.
- Shift your weight onto one side, bend your opposite elbow, and row the weight up and into your lower ribs.
- Extend your arm, replace the weight, switch sides, and repeat.
- Continue alternating arms for the required number of reps.
- You can also do this exercise using kettlebells.
- Don’t go too heavy too soon; the emphasis should be on stabilizing your core and not overloading your biceps and lats.
- Combine with a push-up for a total upper-body and core workout.
5. Medicine Ball Slam
The medicine ball slam is one of my all-time favorite exercises. Not only will it build functional core power and strength, but it’s also a really fun movement to perform! Most core exercises involve a slow, steady tempo. However, slams are fast and explosive, making them a welcome change of pace. So, try them – I think you’ll love them!
How to do it:
- Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and brace your core.
- Hold and raise a medicine ball above your head.
- Putting your entire body into the throw, hurl the ball down at a spot 18-24 inches in front of your feet.
- Catch the ball as it bounces back up, and repeat.
- Do not use a gel-filled medicine ball for this exercise, as it will probably split.
- Rise up onto your toes before slamming the ball down to maximize explosiveness.
- Initiate each rep with a powerful contraction of your abs. Do not turn the movement into an arm/shoulder exercise.
Related: 15 Medicine Ball Exercises for Full Body Workouts.
6. Suitcase Deadlift
The suitcase deadlift is arguably one of the most functional core exercises I know. After all, it closely resembles a common everyday task, i.e., bending down to pick up a grocery bag or suitcase. As such, this is an exercise that almost everyone should include in their core workouts.
How to do it:
- Stand next to a loaded barbell. Your feet should be between shoulder and hip-width apart. Brace your core and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Bend down and hold the center of your barbell. Straighten your arm, drop your hips, and lift your chest.
- Drive your feet into the floor and stand up, resisting the temptation to lean sideways.
- Lower the bar back to the floor and repeat.
- Turn around and do the same number of reps on the opposite side.
- You can also do this exercise with a dumbbell or kettlebell.
- Do this exercise in front of a mirror to ensure you are keeping your torso straight.
- Use gym chalk to stop your hands from slipping.
7. Single-Arm Farmers/Waiters Carry
Carrying heavy weights is one of the best ways to build functional strength. However, to emphasize your core, the load must be predominately on one side. The unbalanced weight forces you to use your core muscles to stabilize your spine and remain upright. Therefore, the farmers and waiters carry are two of the best exercises for this purpose.
How to do it:
- Hold a heavy dumbbell in one hand with your arm by your side (farmers carry) or raise and hold it above your head (waiters carry).
- Brace your core and stabilize your shoulder.
- Without leaning sideways, go for a walk around your training area.
- Continue for the required distance or time, and then switch arms.
- Waiters’ carries are harder than farmers’ carries, so choose accordingly.
- You can also do these exercises with kettlebells or any other heavy object.
- Make sure you put the weight down carefully and don’t just drop it, which could cause injury to you or anyone nearby.
While I have nothing specifically against core isolation and floor-based exercises, in many cases, there are better uses for your time and energy. Sets of crunches and sit-ups will develop your abs, but they won’t do much for your functional core strength.
In contrast, exercises like one-arm farmers carries, suitcase deadlifts, Pallof presses, and renegade rows will build a core that’s as strong as it looks.
Subsequently, even if your main goal is better-looking abs, these functional core exercises will help. Finally, remember that diet is as critical as training for sculpting six-pack abs, so don’t forget to plan your meals accordingly. As the saying goes, abs are made in the kitchen.
Fitness Volt is committed to providing our readers with science-based information. We use only credible and peer-reviewed sources to support the information we share in our articles.
- Luo S, Soh KG, Soh KL, Sun H, Nasiruddin NJM, Du C, Zhai X. Effect of Core Training on Skill Performance Among Athletes: A Systematic Review. Front Physiol. 2022 Jun 6;13:915259. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2022.915259. PMID: 35755428; PMCID: PMC9227831.
- Smrcina Z, Woelfel S, Burcal C. A Systematic Review of the Effectiveness of Core Stability Exercises in Patients with Non-Specific Low Back Pain. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2022 Aug 1;17(5):766-774. doi: 10.26603/001c.37251. PMID: 35949382; PMCID: PMC9340836.
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February 12, 2024
Patrick Dale, PT, ex-Marine