Rebecca Kennedy demonstrates standing core exercise

Tired of Crunches? Try These 7 Standing Core Exercises

They can be just as challenging as mat exercises.

By Michele RossDecember 19, 2023


I have a confession: As much as I love to exercise, it takes a lot for me to gather self-discipline for a dedicated ab workout. When I’m supine on my mat, it’s usually only a matter of minutes before my neck and hips start to ache. (To those with lower back pain, I see you, too.) If these roadblocks sound familiar but you still want to fire up your midsection, I’d like to introduce you to a highly accessible and challenging variation: standing core exercises.

In this guide to standing core exercises, Peloton instructor Rebecca Kennedy outlines their key benefits and the best moves to target your abs, and sometimes even your full body.

What Are Standing Core Exercises?

“Standing core is the most functional way to train your core,” Rebecca begins. In many cases, these exercises are variations of popular ab work performed on the mat but with the built-in benefit of engaging your core (and other muscles) more thoroughly.

“The challenges and work feel subtle and not overwhelmingly difficult, but often have a much higher efficacy to mat work,” she continues. If you opt for a standing core strength class, the exercises “move slowly and build over the class, making it a great option for all ages and levels.”

How Standing Exercises Engage Your Core

Now, for the million-dollar question: How can standing core exercises be easier yet more effective than ab workouts performed on the mat? To start, when you’re working the core from a standing position, you have to move against gravity and keep your balance. This requires greater muscle activation to remain stable.

“Any time you transition movements to different planes of motion, you recruit more muscle groups and open up to new variables like stability, balance, posture, and weight transfer,” Rebecca explains. “Let's also not forget that when we bring core bracing, breathwork, and pelvic floor engagement from a supine position to standing, it magnifies its potency.”

Need some context? Rebecca offers the example of a basic supine crunch, which she says will focus primarily on the rectus abdominis. A standing crunch, on the other hand, will also include:

  • Your lower body in a half squat

  • Your postural muscles to bend and straighten your spine

  • Your deep core muscles, which are more engaged without the floor supporting your back

“For many core exercises, the closer to the ground [you are], the less difficult and lower muscle recruitment per variation it is,” Rebecca notes. Another example illustrating this is the woodchop. She says it involves the least muscle recruitment while seated (since you’re only activating muscles above the hips) and the most while doing alternating standing reps (which requires full-body effort). “More muscles used equals more dynamic movements and higher metabolic output,” she adds.

Why Do Standing Core Workouts

There’s almost no reason not to do this type of exercise; the benefits of standing core workouts are multifold and major. After reading the specifics below, you’ll get on board, too.

They’re Highly Accessible

So long as you can support your weight and stay balanced on your feet, standing core exercises can benefit all types of people—independent of your age, fitness level, or goal. They also tend to be low and slow, making them a good choice for people with diverse needs and backgrounds. (This includes those of us who deal with neck, back, or hip pain, which may heighten with some types of supine ab work.)

According to Rebecca, they can amplify your physical fitness regimen “whether you're training for a marathon, postpartum, coming back from an injury, in a strength training program, or getting started in your fitness journey.” Better yet, you don’t need to rely on a mat or fancy equipment to get a session in. In most cases, it’s an “anywhere, anytime” type of workout, so the convenience factor is also a wonderful perk.

(Note: Standing core classes on the Peloton app are short but sweet, clocking in at five to 20 minutes long. Some require bodyweight only, while others include light or medium dumbbells. “These all play significant roles in the efficacy of each exercise and promote posture, strength and resistance when needed,” Rebecca explains.)

They Enhance Functional Movement

So many movements in daily life—including but not limited to getting out of bed, climbing stairs, and turning around—involve the core. Many of these are performed in an upright position, so training your core while standing can enhance muscle memory and functionality. “Once on our feet, we feel what it would truly be like to maintain that same level of engagement when we are at work, holding our kids, or putting on a pair of heels,” Rebecca shares.

They Boost Your Performance for Other Workouts

In addition to supporting functional movements, standing core exercises often mimic strength training moves (think: squats and deadlifts, among others). According to Rebecca, they’re especially beneficial for lifting weights. Take, for example, deadlifts. “When we deadlift, we are hinging at our hips with a neutral spine holding onto heavy weights,” she shares. “In standing core we practice good mornings and standing bird dogs; both mimic the deadlift without the weights. This creates greater muscle memory and acts as movement prep for direct crossover into our strength training. “

But that’s not all. “The coolest results are when members notice real improvements in their running pace,” she continues. Some also notice additional physical fitness improvements across the board, such as:

  • Better form

  • Greater endurance

  • Ability to increase weights

They Improve Posture and Balance

“Unlike mat core, standing core uses all planes of motion: front to back, side to side, and around,” Rebecca explains. “It also incorporates different levels, like arms above your head, moving your torso from high to low, maintaining balance on your toes, or getting into a low squat.” As such, these moves require everything from finding and maintaining your posture to balancing (and rotating) on one leg. Incorporating dynamic movements to the mix, you’re sure to get in a solid core workout—all the while improving how you hold your body even after your sweat sesh is done for the day.

They Enhance Breath Awareness

“I’d argue one of the top benefits is that [standing core] teaches us how to use our breath to align with and supplement our movements,” Rebecca shares. “Learning how to taper your breath, create compression, use it to recover, or perform a difficult movement are a few examples of what makes it so beneficial.” Once you get your breathwork down—namely by inhaling when the core is relaxed and exhaling when it contracts—you’ll not only perform the moves more effectively, but also find that they’re easier to perform for longer periods of time.

7 Standing Core Exercises to Try

Here, Rebecca shares a variety of the best standing core exercises, with cues on how to perform them safely and effectively.

1. Pelvic Tilts (Pelvic Floor)

1. Stand with a soft bend in your knees, gently squeezing a towel between them.

2. On the inhale, tilt your pelvis forward as you relax the pelvic floor. On the exhale, tilt your pelvis backwards as you tuck tailbone and squeeze the pelvic floor.

3. Do 15 to 20 reps for a full set.

2. Single Leg Isometric Press (Compression)

1. Shift weight to one leg. Lift the other leg with a bent knee.

2. On the inhale, place the opposite hand on your lifted knee. On the exhale, blow out slowly while pressing your leg and palm into each other.

3. Continue for four to five breaths before switching legs for a full set.

4. Repeat two to three sets.

3. Standing Cat Cow (Extension)

1. Stand with your legs at hips’ width apart. Hinge at your waist and place your hands on your thighs, close to (but not directly on) your knees.

2. On the inhale, arch and extend your spine, reaching the crown on your head out and up. On the exhale, round your spine.

3. Continue slowly for 40 seconds.

4. Repeat two to three sets.

Rebecca Kennedy demonstrates offset overhead march exercise move

4. Offset Overhead March (Balance)

1. While standing, hold one medium dumbbell in your right hand. Press it above your arm with your arm locked by your ear and keeping a neutral spine.

2. March in place, briefly pausing at the top of each march.

3. Continue for 30 seconds before switching arms for a full set.

4. Repeat two to three sets.

5. Standing Crunch (Flexion)

1. Stand with your legs at hips’ width apart. Place a soft bend in your knees and slightly hinge at the waist with a neutral spine.

2. Take a basket grip with your hands behind your head. Draw your elbows in to face forward.

3. Inhale to start. On the exhale, engage your core, round your spine, and crunch your elbows down towards your knees. On your next inhale, return back to a neutral spine.

4. Continue for 40 seconds.

5. Repeat two to three sets.

6. Sumo Side Bend (Lateral Flexion)

1. Stand with your legs wider than hips’ width apart and your toes slightly outward (around 15 degrees).

2. With your hands behind your head, lower down to a sumo squat, keeping your hips in line with or slightly above the knees.

3. On the inhale, flex at the waist as you draw your right elbow to your right knee. On the exhale, return to center and repeat on the opposite side.

4. Continue for 40 seconds.

5. Repeat two to three sets.

Rebecca Kennedy demonstrates standing wood chop core exercise move

7. Standing Woodchop (Rotation)

1. Stand with your legs at hips’ width apart. Place a soft bend in your knees, holding a dumbbell with both hands above your left shoulder.

2. Inhale to start. On the exhale, chop the dumbbell down in a diagonal motion across your right leg as you bend at the knees and pivot your left heel and knee inwards. On your next inhale, return to starting position.

3. Continue for 30 seconds before switching to the other side for a complete set.

4. Repeat two to three sets.

Are Standing Core Exercises Safe to Do During Pregnancy?

Standing core work can be included in pregnancy and postnatal workout routines and to great results, especially if you were already doing them pre-pregnancy. “The movements are able to be accommodated during most trimesters,” Rebecca says. Of course, you’ll need to get the all-clear from your doctor first—and don’t hesitate to modify as needed.

Per a 2023 study published in the International Urogynecology Journal, core exercises can protect these muscles (which decrease in thickness but increase in activity during successive trimesters) throughout the prenatal and postnatal periods. Another 2023 randomized control trial, published in the Journal of Manipulative & Physiological Therapeutics, investigated the effects of core stability exercises (focusing on the pelvic floor muscles and deep abdominal muscles) in pregnant women with lumbar and pelvic girdle pain over 10 weeks. Women who practiced these exercises experienced less lumbar and pelvic girdle pain and reported a higher quality of life than the control group who didn’t perform the core work.

The Takeaway

Mat core work is great, but standing core exercises might be the secret sauce to bring your muscle activation to the next level. Variety is key and you’ll want to keep your muscles guessing, so it’s worth incorporating a mix of different moves—standing, supine, and otherwise—into your greater fitness routine.

On a parting note, Rebecca says to think beyond six-packs and aesthetic value. “When thinking of your core, go beyond the reflection in the mirror,” she advises. “Our core is our powerhouse, housing our lungs and our biggest source of stability.” That said, boosting core strength can empower and equip us to move (and breathe) with more grace, ease, and confidence day in and day out.


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