Core Exercises

Adrea Gibbs
Planking to increase core strength

Finding the right core exercises can be easy. It is often the implementation that is the hard part. Determining specific needs and interests is step one in putting together a successful core exercise program that will keep you engaged and on the path to creating a strong core.

Take on the Core

Fitness professionals often discuss the need to have a strong core, the combined muscles that surround and support the spine. Core exercises focus on the following:

  • Building and strengthening muscles of the torso, which include back, abdominals, and hips
  • Creating a balanced, strong, and healthy physique
  • Minimizing the risk of physical injury

Core exercises, such as the plank, which looks like a push-up being held in the upward phase of the movement, are extremely challenging, focusing directly on the core are of the body. As with all exercise, using proper form is important for success.

It is also important to remember the lower back is a major part of the core structure. Stretching properly and heightening awareness of how the engaged part of the back plays into the body's structural integrity is the key to executing core exercises well.

Work Your Abs

Your abdominals are one part of your core, and are the most commonly worked core muscles. Many people choose abdominal crunches for a basic ab workout. You may need to try alternatives if you have problems with the following areas:

Crunches > sit-ups
  • Hips
  • Shoulders
  • Back
  • Knees

The abdominal crunch has replaced traditional sit-ups. While crunches target the abdominals, they have advantages over sit-ups including:

  • Reduces strain on neck and back
  • Minimizes the use of hip flexors in the exercise
  • Focuses directly on the abdominal region and spine-stabilizing muscles

Use Proper Technique

When performing any core workouts, proper technique is critical to assure maximum benefit and protection from injury. Included in proper techique are:

  • Breathing techniques
  • Focus on the targeted area
  • Use of proper form

When you are confident you have mastered the basic movement pattern, elevate it by using variations to kick it up a notch. Create a core routine that motivates and excites you, which is an important piece to the challenge of being consistent and dedicated to any workout.

Use Variations

Exercise balls mix it up!

You can vary your routine in many ways. Varying how you perform your exercises will allow your muscles to not become conditioned to any single exercise, and it will help you keep your results progressive so you don't hit a workout plateau. To vary your exercises:

  • Use different positions.
  • Slow the length of time it takes to perform each movement of the exercise.
  • Change the order in which you perform the series.
  • Add new movements or exercises.
  • Use equipment, such as stability balls, resistance bands, or medicine balls, which adds greater challenge to holding form properly during the exercise while engaging additional muscle groups.
  • Employ exercises from other disciplines, such as yoga and Pilates.
  • Attend a gym, which may offer a broader spectrum of equipment, such as ab machines

Workout in the Pool

Pool workouts may work well for the following people:

  • People who can't do conventional land-based exercises
  • People recovering from injury
  • People with limitations on weight-bearing exercises
  • People with joint or back problems

Water provides natural resistance, which can be reduced or increased based on factors ranging from the speed at which exercises are conducted to performing exercises at the side, on the bottom, or suspended, such as by using a noodle for floatation. It is an ideal way for those with physical limtations to work their core.

Standing Abdominal Exercises

Another alternative, particularly for individuals who may not be able to maneuver easily up and down from a floor position, or who don't have immediate access to a pool, are standing abdominal exercises.

Standing Crunches

This is a standing version of the traditional crunch.

  1. Stand tall, in neutral alignment with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Cross both arms over the chest, lightly holding the opposite shoulders if possible. Contract the shoulder blades, pulling both together without allowing the back to arch. Alternatively, place your hands at the base of the head with your elbows pointed directly out to the sides. Maintain this starting position throughout exercise. NOTE: If issues with the shoulders are present, use the cross-chest position.
  3. Exhale in a single breath through the next steps.
  4. Contract the abdominals. Really focus on bringing the belly button back toward the spine.
  5. Drop the chin slightly toward your chest.
  6. Curl, one vertebra at a time while squeezing the ribcage together and contract, lowering the upper body toward the hips.
  7. Keep the neck relaxed and your lower back, tailbone, and feet in alignment with your knees soft (not straightened or tight).
  8. Continue until you are looking directly at the floor.
  9. Squeeze your abdominals for several seconds while holding.
  10. Slowly curl back up to the starting position.
  11. Repeat 10- 15 times.
  12. Rest.
  13. Work up to 3 sets, then add repetitions or additional sets to the workout.

Standing Oblique Crunch

Hands behind your head

This is a great exercise for side abdominal muscles. Focusing on the abdominal contraction and closing the space between your ribcage and hip bone is key.

Increase the intensity
  1. Stand tall, in neutral alignment, with the feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Clasp the hands together against and in front of your chest so your elbows are pointed at the hip bones.
  3. Exhale in a single breath through the next steps.
  4. Contract the abdominals. Really focus on bringing the belly button back toward the spine.
  5. Lift your torso upward, then gently squeeze to the right side, bringing your elbow directly to your hip bone. Think about the ribcage and hip meeting.
  6. Hold briefly.
  7. Inhale and lift back up to the beginning position.
  8. Repeat to the other side.
  9. Do 4-10 repetition on each side.
  10. Rest.
  11. Work up to 3 sets, then add repetitions or additional sets to workout.
  12. To increase intensity, place the hands at the base of the head with your elbows pointed directly out to the sides and hold this upper body position through the exercise. It is important to note that this requires additional flexibility and control to perform correctly.

Standing Side Chop

The additional rotation in this exercise supports functional movement found in everyday life.

  1. Stand tall, in neutral alignment, with the feet just outside shoulder-width and your knees soft (not straightened or tight).
  2. Clasp your hands together at the right shoulder with your elbows pointed downward in front of chest.
  3. Exhale in a single breath through the next steps.
  4. Contract the abdominals. Really focus on bringing the belly button back toward the spine.
  5. Lift your torso upward, then gently rotate your upper body down toward your left knee, swinging the clasped hands to your knee.
  6. Squeeze the abdominals while bringing front of left ribs toward left hip bone.
  7. Hold briefly.
  8. Inhale and lift back up to the beginning position.
  9. Repeat on the same side 4-10 times.
  10. Switch to the other side and repeat steps.
  11. Rest.
  12. Work up to 3 sets, then add repetitions or additional sets to the workout.

Use the progressions to increase repetitions and number of sets you can do successfully in a single session. This is an excellent way to increase stamina, strength, and stabilization. Standing abdominal exercises make a great addition to crunches and planks, offering more variety to the workout program. These exercises can also aid in maintaining fitness levels or reducing the potential for an exercise plateau.

Finishing Right

It is always important with any exercise regimen to warm-up and cool-down, and stretching is a key component, particularly at the end of the workout. As your muscles have already been warmed up, it presents the ideal situation to gently and effectively work on lengthening them and reducing the potential for injury.

Of Sit-Ups, Crunches, and Core Exercise

Making a commitment to exercise, whether you want to improve your physique, lose weight, increase stamina, or strengthen your body, is not as easy as it appears when looking at it from the surface. It requires dedication and commitment to a workout plan, but if followed, you will notice great results. Engage in a series of exercises that you find challenging but enjoy. Using the exercises presented above, you'll be well on your way towards a strong, healthy core.

Core Exercises