We often think of abdominal exercises as important if we want to have muscular definition, whether that be full blown 6-pack abs or a more toned midsection. While this could be an extra-added benefit of developing a solid core workout routine, there are other and far more important reasons to strengthen your core.
Our core muscles actually wrap around our entire midsection, including our pelvis and trunk. We have 29 core muscles in total, and some of the major players include the rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis, erector spinae, multifidus, and the internal and external obliques. Weak core muscles can result in back problems, poor balance and stability, and bad posture (which can spark further problems). Strengthening and training the core muscles makes every day movements and activities easier and greatly reduces the chance of injury. Furthermore, a strong core greatly helps to protect the spine, which shares the burden of supporting your entire body weight with your bones.
Good core exercises are not just focused on toning your abs. They focus also on your glutes, erector spinae (muscles that go up your spine) and deep, intrinsic core muscles. And yes, a nice side effect is generally more aesthetically pleasing muscles, although diet plays a major role in visible muscle definition, as well.
This is an oldie but a goodie, and any yoga practitioner knows it well. The plank targets all of your core muscles, along with your arms, shoulders and legs. Basically, it is a total body toning exercise, if executed properly.
Come into a plank on either your forearms or palms (if your wrists are bothered, forearms are fine). The key to a plank is engaging/tightening all of your muscles, and making sure your low back is not sinking down towards the floor, or that your hips aren’t sticking way up in the air. If you are getting any pain or discomfort in your low back, think of sucking your bellybutton up to your spine. Also, be sure that your shoulders stay relaxed down your back instead of hunched up to your ears.
And breathe! Hold position anywhere from 10 seconds to 1 minute.
The side plank is also an excellent, total body toning exercise, and emphasizes oblique strength and shoulder strength, as well. This exercise can similarly be done on your forearm or the palm of your hand.
Begin by lying on your side on the floor, and with your elbow or palm directly under your shoulder, lift your body up, feet stacked on top of each other. Keep your entire body tight and all muscles engaged. Hold from 10-30 seconds, and switch sides.
To modify this movement, simply lower your bottom knee to the floor for extra support.
This core exercise focuses on your posterior chain muscles, particularly the erector spinae that we discussed earlier. This is an important movement to strengthen the back and glutes, and prevent injury.
In version one, you will begin by laying face down on the floor or a mat with your arms stretched overhead, and everything relaxed. On an inhale, raise opposite leg/opposite arm together (right arm, left leg), hold for 3-5 seconds, and release on an exhale. Now, switch sides and repeat.
To make this exercise more difficult, raise both arms and legs at the same time, hold for several seconds, and lower.
A reverse crunch is an excellent core movement that prevents strain on the neck, which can easily occur with a traditional crunch or sit-up. Here, instead of moving your shoulders, neck and head, your movement will come from the legs. With this exercise, there are many variations to make it more or less challenging, so can be easily progressed depending on your fitness level, or as you become stronger.
Begin by laying flat on your back, with both legs straight up in the air at a 90-degree angle. You want your legs as straight as possible, but if your hamstring flexibility prevents this, a bend in the knees is fine. Be sure your low back is pressed firmly into the floor (your natural curvature is okay, you just want to avoid your low back arching way up as you lower the legs).
Now, start by lowering one leg at a time, hovering it right above the ground, bringing it back to starting position and switching legs. This alone can be a challenge, but if it feels too easy, lower both legs as the same time. If you reach a point where your low back lifts up off the floor and/or you feel pain in the low back, this is where you stop and bring your legs back up.
Repeat 10-20 repetitions.
For most, this seems like an unlikely core exercise, but it is actually one of the best. Along with strengthening all of your core muscles similarly to a plank, you also get an excellent upper body workout. And, there are many variations of a push-up to make it either easier or more challenging.
Begin in a plank pose on your hands as described above, keeping the entire body flexed and not allowing your low back to arch towards the floor. Elbows should be at about a 45 degree angle, and you will inhale as you lower to the just above the floor, exhale as you raise back up. Repeat.
Modify the push-up by coming down to your knees, or even better raising the incline of your movement, placing your hands on a sturdy chair, bar (if in a gym), or even against a wall for beginners.
**Try these core exercises in a circuit, doing 10-12 reps of each movement, and repeating the circuit of 5 exercises 3 times.
*Disclaimer: This info is not intended to be a substitute for the medical advice of a licensed physician. Please consult with your doctor before starting a new workout or diet plan and exercise at your own risk.