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9 Standing Core Exercises That Will Fire Up Your Abs
Because planks and crunches aren’t your only options.
From Self Magazine-By Jenny McCoy-Reviewed by Christa Sgobba, C.P.T.
From planks to crunches to sit-ups, a lot of classic abs moves take place on the ground. But there are actually loads of standing core exercises you can do to seriously engage your midsection. In fact, standing core exercises provide unique and legit benefits that you won’t get on the mat, making them a worthwhile add to your workout routine.
As for why core strength matters in the first place, well, “the core is the center of the body,” personal trainer Evan Williams, CSCS, CPT, certified strength and conditioning coach and founder of E2G Performance, tells SELF. When you do most any type of functional movement, your core has to engage in order to help you get into the positioning you need to execute that move properly, Williams explains. Another way to think about it: Without good core engagement, your posture and positioning in a move will be off, which will then impede your ability to do it correctly and safely.
Take a deadlift, for example. With good core engagement, you’ll be able to maintain a flat back as you lift and lower the weight, which will allow you to power the move with your glutes and hamstrings instead of arching your spine and inadvertently stressing your lower back.
Now, if you want your core to work as optimally as possible, it’s important to include multiple types of core exercises, including standing moves as well as on-the-ground ones. Standing core exercises are important because so many movements in life are performed from an upright position—whether you’re walking your dog, climbing the stairs, or carrying a load of laundry. “Humans do most of our movements standing up,” says Williams, “so it’s good to have proper strength while standing vertically.”
At the same time, mat exercises have their place, too, since they are generally more beginner-friendly, thanks to the floor, which helps provide stability and a base of support. That means they can be a great starting point for folks easing into an exercise routine. Additionally, because of that ground support, you can add more load in mat moves (usually in the form of free weights, like dumbbells and kettlebells), making these exercises ideal for muscle growth, says Williams.
So yes, a well-rounded exercise program will include both types of core moves. But chances are you may be a bit more familiar with those mat options. So if you’re looking to know more about standing core exercises, well, stay right here. We tapped Williams for must-know info on standing core exercises, including how they work your abs, who they’re good for, and how to add them into your routine. We also rounded up nine awesome standing core exercises that you can try at home. Let’s get to it!
How do standing exercises work your abs?
Both standing core exercises and on-the-mat core exercises work your core muscles. But the difference is how they achieve core engagement. With standing moves, a lot of the core engagement happens as a result of stability and balance work. When you’re performing an exercise standing up, your core has to stabilize in order to resist gravity and keep you in the correct positioning, explains Williams. And if the movement includes a balance component—say, you’re doing single-leg deadlifts, for instance—your core must also engage to keep you from falling over.
More specifically, a lot of standing core moves are anti-movement exercises. That means your core engages to resist movement as you perform the exercise. For example, a suitcase carry (which involves walking while holding a weight in one hand) is a category of anti-movement exercises known as anti-lateral flexion exercises. When you perform the suitcase carry, your core has to really engage to maintain an upright posture and resist the force of the weight pulling you to the side. A Palloff press is another anti-movement example—this time, an anti-rotation exercise. In a Pallof press, you’re pulling a cable from the side of your body to the front of your body, and your core has to engage to prevent you from rotating toward the cable.
The same goes for traditional weighted strength training exercises that are unilateral, like a single-arm row or single-arm overhead press. When you’re holding just one weight, your body naturally wants to rotate and shift toward the side with the weight, so you need to engage your core to stop that from happening. Even though you may not think of these strength training moves as “abs exercises,” the unilateral aspect of them really puts your core to the test.
But standing core moves can also be more dynamic and actually involve rotation of the torso. The woodchopper is one example of a rotational standing core move. In the woodchopper, you lift a weight (or just your hands) up and down diagonally across your body. This motion, which involves twisting your torso, works dynamic core strength, power, and core stability, says Williams.
You can do both anti-movement exercises and dynamic rotational exercises on the mat—planks and Russian twists would be two respective examples. But the difference is that, in general, on-the-mat moves include support from the floor that helps you stay in the right position, says Williams. That means there’s typically less stability demanded in on-the-floor moves compared to those performed standing.
Who can benefit from standing abs exercises?
Most anyone can do and benefit from standing abs exercises, so long as they have the ability to stand, says Williams. That said, brand-new exercisers may want to start with on-the-mat moves like dead bugs and bird dogs since those are generally more beginner-friendly, suggests Williams. Once you’ve gotten the hang of those movements and feel good about your ability to engage your core on the mat, you can progress to standing moves, he says.
Then start with standing isometric moves—essentially, exercises where you get into a position and hold, he advises. One example: Hold a weight in one hand and see if you can effectively engage your core to stay upright without tipping to the side. From there, you can gradually experiment with more movement while standing.
Important caveat: If you have any type of back pain, you may want to avoid moves that involve a lot of spinal flexion (like any type of standing crunch) since that motion could aggravate your issues. Talk with your physical therapist or doctor about which moves might be best for you.
How should you use standing core exercises?
Williams suggests doing standing core exercises two to three times a week. You don’t need to dedicate a whole workout to them; he recommends picking two or three exercises and sprinkling them into your usual strength training workout. Aim for three sets of eight to 15 reps of each exercise, he says.
A great way to incorporate standing core moves into your existing strength routine is to use them in a circuit after a main lift, says Williams. For example, after a set of back squats, you may choose to do a set of woodchoppers as a way to actively recover from the back squats and fire up your core muscles, which will benefit you in your next big lift.
Once an exercise starts to feel easy, you can always up the intensity of the move, says Williams. This ensures your body is continually challenged. You can crank up the intensity by adding load, narrowing your stance, or increasing the balance challenge—for example, progressing from a kickstand deadlift to a single-leg deadlift.
Also important: Don’t forget about on-the-mat exercises. Like we mentioned, both standing core moves and grounded moves have a place in your exercise routine. Williams recommends shooting for an even ratio between the two.
Standing Core Exercises
Ready to try standing core moves for yourself? Here are nine awesome options to consider slotting into your workout routine.
Just remember: If you have any type of back pain, you may want to avoid moves that involve lots of spinal flexion—in this case, moves 7, 8, and 9—since they could aggravate your issues.
Demoing the moves below is Tina Tang, a strength coach who mentors women 50-plus to lift weights through peri and post-menopause.
- 1. Dumbbell WindmillStand with your feet wider than hip-width apart with both of your feet turned about 45 degrees to the left. Hold a dumbbell in your left hand and extend your left arm straight overhead (don’t bend your elbow) so that it’s almost touching your ear. Pull your left shoulder away from your left ear and engage your lats to keep the weight hoisted. Your right hand should be resting straight by your side. This is the starting position.Keeping your left arm directly overhead and your eyes on your left hand, push your left hip out to the side and glutes slightly back. Your right knee will be slightly bent as your left leg remains straight.Hinge forward at your hips as you lower your right hand to the floor between your thighs, rotating your upper body slightly inward so that your left arm stays pointing toward the ceiling. Keep your core tight and back flat.When your right hand reaches the floor, pause for a moment before slowly standing back up, keeping your left hand raised straight above as you do so.That’s 1 rep. Do a set number of reps, then switch sides and repeat.
- 2. Thigh-Supported Single-Arm RowStand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in your right hand with your arm at your side. Step forward about two feet with your left foot and rest your left hand on your left quad. This is the starting position.With your core engaged, hinge forward at the hips, pushing your butt back, and bend your left knee, making sure you don’t round your shoulders. (Your hip mobility and hamstring flexibility will dictate how far you can bend over.) Gaze at the ground a few inches in front of your feet to keep your neck in a comfortable position.Pull the weight up toward your chest, keeping your elbows hugged close to your body, and squeezing your shoulder blade for two seconds at the top of the movement. Your elbow should go past your back as you bring the weight toward your chest.Slowly lower the weight by extending your arms toward the floor. That’s 1 rep. Continue for a set amount of reps.
- 3. Single-Leg DeadliftStand with your feet together, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your legs. This is the starting position.Shift your weight to your left leg, and, while keeping a slight bend in your left knee, raise your right leg straight behind your body, hinging at the hips to bring your torso parallel to the floor, and lower the weight toward the floor.Keep your back flat. At the bottom of the movement, your torso and right leg should be almost parallel to the floor, with the weight a few inches off the ground. (If your hamstrings are tight, you may not be able to lift your leg as high.)Keeping your core tight, push through your left heel to stand up straight and pull the weight back up to the starting position. Bring your right leg back down to meet your left but try to keep the majority of your weight in your left foot.Pause there and squeeze your butt. That’s 1 rep.Continue for a set number of reps, then switch sides and repeat.
- Stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand and rest it at shoulder height, with elbow bent and palm facing toward your body in a neutral grip. This is the starting position.Press the dumbbell overhead, straightening your elbow completely. Make sure to keep your core engaged and hips tucked under to avoid arching your lower back as you lift your arm.Slowly bend your elbow to lower the weight back down to the starting position. This is 1 rep. Continue for a set number of reps, then switch sides and repeat.
- 5. Woodchopper
- Stand with feet wider than hip-width apart, core engaged, arms at your sides.
- Clasp hands together above your head and to the right, allowing your torso and toes to naturally rotate to the right as you twist.
- Now “chop” your arms down to the left, bringing them across the front of your body and aiming toward your left ankle, allowing your torso and toes to naturally rotate in that direction. Focus on keeping your lower body more stable and bracing your core to rotate. This is 1 rep.
- Lift your arms up and to the right to start the next rep. Continue on the same side for a set time or number of reps, then repeat on the other side.
- This move works your transverse abdominis (your deepest core muscles), rectus abdominis (the muscles that run vertically along your abdomen) and obliques. Make it harder by holding a dumbbell.
- 6. Curtsy Lunge to Side Leg LiftStand with your feet hip-width apart and your core engaged, hands raised by your ears, palms facing forward, elbows bent (as pictured), or clasped in front of your chest. This is the starting position.Step your right foot diagonally behind your left leg and bend both of your knees to drop into a curtsy lunge.Push through your left heel to stand, and drive your right knee out and up toward your right elbow, balancing for just a moment.Lower your right foot and bring it behind your left leg, as you immediately drop into your next rep.Once all of your reps are completed on one side, switch to the other side.
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, hands raised by your ears, palms facing forward, elbows bent. This is the starting position.Twist your torso to crunch your left knee toward your right elbow.Lower your leg back to the ground, then repeat the oblique twist on the other side. This is 1 rep.Continue for a set number of reps.
- 8. Alternating Standing Side CrunchStand with your feet hip-width apart and hands behind your head and elbows wide.Lift your left knee toward your left elbow while you bend your torso up and over to the left. Now repeat on the other side.That’s 1 rep. Continue for a set number of reps, alternating sides.
- 9. Squat to Oblique CrunchStand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, hands raised by your ears, palms facing forward, elbows bent. This is the starting position.Engage your core and keep your chest lifted and back flat as you shift your weight into your heels; push your hips back and bend your knees to lower into a squat.Come back upright and use the momentum to twist your torso and crunch your left knee toward your right elbow.Lower your leg back to the ground, then squat down again, and repeat the oblique twist on the other side. This is 1 rep.Continue for a set number of reps.