If you’re looking to build a toned and defined core, you’ve probably already thought about adding traditional ab workouts to your routine.
However, even though exercises like crunches, sit-ups, and planks are classics for a reason, there are also plenty of other options out there for carving out strong, sculpted abs.
Your core is one of the most important muscle groups in your entire body, and it’s responsible for keeping you stable and balanced through your workouts.
As a result, there are tons of less-expected exercises that you can incorporate into your routine that will help you build strength and definition.
Read on to learn more about why exercising your core is so important. You’ll also find out about nine underrated exercises that you can start doing to build rock-solid and defined abdominal muscles.
Why Your Core Strength Is So Important
Your core is a large group of muscles found throughout your trunk and your hips. This group includes the abdominal muscles and obliques, which are the muscles in your midsection that you likely picture when you think of core work.
However, your core also includes muscles that support your spine, like the erector spinae and the multifidus. The hip muscles that keep your body stable are part of your core as well, such as your hip flexors, abductors, adductors, and rotators.
Because your core is made up of so many different muscles, strengthening your core serves many functions.
Not only does it help you maintain balance and improve your performance as an athlete, but it can also help protect your lower back and even prevent injury.
In fact, core strength exercises are used as a treatment for back pain since they play such integral roles in protecting and supporting your spine!
Additionally, having a strong and healthy core can help improve your posture.
9 Underrated Exercises to Tone Your Core
Isolation exercises like crunches and sit-up variations specifically target the muscles in your abdomen, and they can certainly be effective for strengthening your core.
However, you should add other exercise to the mix if you want a well-balanced workout routine that builds a strong and stable core.
Remember, your core is made up of many different muscle groups, which means that isolation exercises alone may not be hitting every group.
Research has indicated that incorporating a wide variety of exercises can challenge different parts of your core.
Additionally, a small study found that core muscles were more activated during workouts that also involved other muscle groups!
As a result, many fitness professionals believe that standing compound-weighted exercises are good for improving core stability.
You can also add dynamic movements to your routine that challenge your core and help you work up a sweat, ultimately helping you with your overall body composition goals. Here are some suggestions for that.
When you think of squats, you likely think of them as a lower body exercise. However, even though squats primarily target your leg and glute muscles, they’re also a full-body exercise that is equally challenging for your core!
In a comparison of back squats to planks, a classic core exercise, researchers found that high-intensity sets of squats led to greater activation of the erector spinae and the rectus abdominis muscles.
In fact, the researchers even concluded that athletes should target their core with high-intensity squats rather than isolated core exercises, like bridges.
How to do a squat: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, then “sit back” by bending your hips and knees while keeping your back straight.
Lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the ground, then push through your heels to return to a standing position. Once you’re comfortable with this movement, add weights to increase the intensity.
2. Bench press
The bench press is another great compound movement that works your entire upper body. It’s perhaps best known for its chest activation, but you also need your core muscles to stay stable during this movement.
As you move through this workout, your core muscles need to activate to maintain proper form and balance. This engagement is not only good for lifting heavier weights, but it can also help you develop a stronger, more stable core over time.
How to bench press: Lie flat on a stable bench with your feet firmly on the ground. Grip the barbell at an angle that’s slightly wider than your shoulder width, then lower the bar toward your chest while keeping your elbows close to your body.
Push the weight back up, using muscles in your chest, arms, and core, until your arms are fully extended.
You can also do this exercise with two dumbbells. If this is your first time benching, make sure to start with lighter weights. Until you have your form down, it’s recommended that you recruit someone to spot you.
3. Kettlebell swings
Kettlebells are a relatively underutilized piece of workout equipment, but they’re a great investment if you’re interested in total body movements and core workouts.
Kettlebell swings are great for working up a sweat, targeting your glutes, and improving the stabilization of your core. They’re also an excellent option for improving your explosive strength, making it a good choice for athletes and people interested in functional fitness.
How to do a kettlebell swing: Stand with your knees slightly bent and your legs slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, holding onto your kettlebell with both hands.
Swing your kettlebell forward by thrusting your hips and straightening your legs, then let the kettlebell swing back between your legs and repeat.
Make sure that you are hinging at your hips, following the momentum of the motion, and keeping your back flat.
4. Hanging leg raise
Hanging leg raises are an excellent alternative to floor crunches. This movement specifically targets your lower abdominal muscles but enlists support from your entire core in order to keep you stable.
Hanging leg raises require you to work against gravity but can still be kinder to your back than abs-targeting exercises when done with proper form.
How to do a hanging leg raise: Find a firm grip on a pull-up bar and hang from it with your legs straight. Using your abdominal muscles, lift your legs in front of you as high as you can, then lower them back down with control. Repeat.
For the best results, avoid using your momentum to complete the movement.
5. Hollow hold
Deceptively simple but great for a full core burn, hollow holds are one of the more underrated abdominal floor exercises.
Holding this position requires work from your entire core, including your abdominal and back muscles, which can ultimately help improve your stability, strength, and endurance.
How to do a hollow hold: Lie flat on your back with your arms and legs extended. Keeping your lower back pressed to the floor, lift your head, shoulders, and legs slightly off of the ground.
Hold this position for about 30 seconds, then release and repeat.
6. Mountain climbers
Mountain climbers are a more dynamic spin on stationary planks, which makes them an excellent option for people looking to add a little more movement to their usual core exercise routine.
Mountain climbers are also great for incorporating cardio into your routine. While isolated exercises like sit-ups and crunches can certainly make your muscles stronger and more defined, it’s also a myth that you can target fat loss (aka “spot reduce”) in specific areas.
Your abdominal muscles are covered by a thin layer of fat. As a result, if one of your goals is to see more ab definition, you should add cardio to your exercise routine to help boost your overall fat loss, which can help you see those stronger muscles underneath.
How to do a mountain climber: Start in a high plank position with your hands directly below your shoulders. Pull one knee up toward your chest, then switch legs in a “running” motion with your hands on the ground.
Make sure to use your core to ensure the rest of your body is as stable as possible. Keep your hips low.
7. Shoulder taps
Similarly, shoulder taps take your planks to another level by forcing your trunk to stay stable while your arms are switching. This activates core muscles like the rectus and transverse abdominis, promoting both strength and balance.
How to perform a shoulder tap: Start in a high plank with your hands directly below your shoulders. Carefully lift one hand up to tap the opposite shoulder, using your core muscles to keep the rest of your body still.
Return that hand to the ground and switch to the other.
8. Overhead high knees
If you’re interested in a low-impact but effective workout, consider adding overhead high knees to your routine.
This movement targets your lower abs and hip flexors in the same way that reverse crunch would, but you can also increase the difficulty by adding weights and forcing your entire body to stay stable for more core engagement.
How to do overhead high knees: Hold a weight above your head with both hands, making sure to keep a firm grip, with your arms fully extended. Alternate lifting your knees until the thigh is parallel to the ground, maintaining a brisk and rhythmic pace.
Focus on engaging your core throughout the movement.
Finally, if you’re looking for a total body burn that targets every muscle group including your core, do burpees!
Burpees can be challenging, but they’re an excellent dynamic movement for burning calories and challenging your core through large and explosive movements.
In fact, burpees are such a good full-body workout that a 3-minute Burpee Test is even used to assess strength endurance.
How to perform a burpee: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, then drop into a squat and place your hands on the ground.
Kick your feet back until you are in a plank position, then jump your feet forward again and return to the squat. Then, jump straight up into the air and immediately repeat the sequence.
In virtually every full-body movement you do, your core is responsible for keeping you stable, and this means that you have tons of opportunities to strengthen this important muscle group.
Incorporate a mix of isolation exercises and full-body compound movements into your fitness regimen to challenge yourself and build the strong, sturdy core of your dreams.