5 Core Exercises to Add to Your Fitness Routine
Sport & Activity
Two certified personal trainers share what they think are the best core exercises and explain why training your abdominal muscles is important for overall health.
Having a strong core is helpful for a range of daily activities—from carrying shopping to running uphill. And perhaps even more important, research has indicated that training your abdominal muscles can also help prevent and ease lower-back pain.
Below, two certified personal trainers explain the potential benefits of incorporating more core-strengthening exercises into your workout routine. Then, they identify the five best core exercises they recommend to clients.
The Benefits of a Strong Core
The two main benefits of doing core exercises are aesthetics and function. Aesthetically, core workouts create a lean core with muscular definition, particularly in the rectus abdominis, aka those six-pack ab muscles, said Michael Julom, a CrossFit Level 1 trainer and ACE-certified personal trainer.
A strong core helps protect the spine and is crucial for every activity we do, such as sitting up, standing for long periods, walking, carrying shopping, starting a lawn mower or picking up a child, according to both Justin Agustin, ISSA-C.P.T and Julom.
A strong core can also prevent compensations and imbalances from occurring.
"If your core muscles are undertrained, other parts of your body will compensate to [bear] that load, thus giving you strange aches and pains all over", Agustin said. This can lead to back pain, poor posture, shaky balance, lack of stability and low standing stamina.
And, he added, day-to-day activities such as standing and picking up weighted objects could even become more challenging, increasing the risk of injury.
5 Best Core Exercises, According to Trainers
Julom said this core-strengthening exercise targets the transverse abdominis, the deep muscles beneath the ab muscles, which helps stabilise the spine. It requires arching your back and takes practice to master. Julom suggested propping up your lumbar area with a small cushion until you get the hang of it.
- Lie on your back on the ground.
- Take a breath and after completing your exhale, draw your belly back and up, towards your back and into your ribcage.
- Hold for five seconds, then breathe.
- Repeat for two or three sets of 10 to 12 reps each.
According to Agustin, the bird dog move is one of the best core exercises because it trains the front and back core muscles. It also helps improve balance and stability.
- Start on your hands and knees with your hands directly under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
- Reach one arm in front of you and extend the opposite leg behind you, keeping a straight line from your fingers to your toes.
- Keeping your abs engaged, slowly bring your elbow and your knee together in a crunching motion.
- Extend again and repeat 10 times.
- Switch sides and repeat for a total of three sets.
No list of the best core-strengthening exercises is complete without planks. "This is a simple but very effective core exercise", Agustin said. "It targets not just your core muscles completely, but also other groups like your chest, shoulders and arms".
- Begin face down with your hands and toes on the floor. Push your body up so that it's level with the ground. Keep your back, neck and arms straight but do not lock your elbows completely.
- Ensure you're engaging your abdominal muscles while holding a plank.
- Hold the plank as long as you can. "Remember to end the set when your body begins to give out", Agustin said. "If you can no longer keep your body in a straight line and your shoulders begin to retract behind you, the set is over".
- Rest for 10 seconds. Then repeat for a total of three to five sets.
While doing planks, it's important that you remember to breathe throughout. "Inhale through your nose, breathing deeply through your diaphragm, and exhale through your mouth", Agustin said. "As you're going through your breathing pattern, your core and abs should remain tight.
Imagine bracing your stomach as if someone is about to punch you in that area—you're flexing but still breathing".
Agustin also said that people with hypertension should avoid doing isometric moves such as planks. When in doubt, check with your doctor first.
The classic crunch is an essential core-strengthening exercise because it isolates the abs, it's great for all skill levels and—most importantly—delivers results.
- Lie down with your back on the ground and your legs bent at 90 degrees, knees at hip-width apart and your feet on the ground.
- Place your hands behind your head, keeping the elbows flared to the sides.
- Tighten your abs and raise your shoulders off the floor, bending at the lower ribcage. Maintain a neutral neck, meaning your chin never touches the chest.
- Do three to four sets of 15 to 30 reps each. Julom recommended doing methodical, slow, controlled reps. Speed is not the goal.
5.Dumbbell Side Bends
Don't forget to also work the sides of your core. "Single side bends target the oblique muscles, the diagonal muscles that run from the ribcage to the top of the pelvis", Julom said.
This move can be done with a light or moderate-weight dumbbell. An ideal weight, Julom said, allows you to do 15 to 20 reps.
The key, he added, is to only use one dumbbell. If you hold a dumbbell in each hand, your body remains balanced, defeating the purpose of this core exercise.
- Grab a single dumbbell in one hand.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, keeping your legs straight. Ensure the palm holding the dumbbell is facing your thigh.
- Slowly bend away from the side, holding the dumbbell as far as you can without moving the hips, feet or legs. Squeeze the muscles of the working side as you do this.
- Return to the starting position.
- Switch the dumbbell to the other hand and repeat for three sets of 15–20 reps on each side.
Words by Jessica Estrada