From the time I started out in personal training, “core training” has transformed into a widespread and important concept. For the record, your “core” is your midsection — your body’s center of power. By that, I mean it’s all the muscles in that area: back, front, and sides. Anatomy nerds might point out that this includes your lower latissimus dorsi, multifidus, erector spinae, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, and traverse abdominis. But, whether you use Latin names or simply say “core,” these muscles require your diligent attention.
3 Good Reasons to Work Your Core
Counterbalance: It’s hardly breaking news that we’ve become more sedentary over the years. In 2020, sedentary might even be the new normal. The more you sit, the weaker your core muscles become. Core work serves as a counterbalance to this unhealthy trend.
Stability: Your core muscles play an essential role in stabilizing your entire body. Training your core can help prevent outcomes that range from annoying (protruding belly) to dangerous (lower back pain).
Posture: As you strengthen your core muscles, you will notice an increase in the quality of your posture. In turn, this enables you to perform other exercises more safely and effectively.
3 Safe Ways to Work Your Core
Superman (Beginner Level)
This will get your core more powerful than a locomotive. All you need to make this exercise fly is enough floor space to lie flat with your arms and legs fully extended.
If you have a mat, great. If not, find a comfortable spot on the floor on which you can lie on your stomach — your arms and legs extended (but not fully locked) and your neck in line with your spine (in “neutral”).
To perform the basic Superman, simultaneously raise your arms and legs up a few inches, allowing your back to gently arch. You should look something like Superman when he is flying.
Depending on your fitness level, hold this position anywhere from two to 10 seconds before slowly lowering your limbs back down to the floor. Repeat this motion for three sets of 10. For a variation, try lifting only your right arm and your left leg, alternating with a left arm-right leg lift.
Plank (Intermediate Level)
First yoga and then Pilates claimed this position but now, you’ll find planks being done in every gym in America — and for good reason. This simple pose serves your core well.
Begin by lying face down on a mat, your elbows resting slightly wider than your chest. Raise up into the “up” position of a push-up. Depending on your conditioning and strength, you can rest your upper body weight on your elbows (a little easier) or hands. Your lower body weight is balanced on your toes (novices might wish to modify by doing a plank on their knees).
Here are your cues: Your back is straight, your abs are tight, and your spine is long. Visualize the top of your head being pulled in one direction and your heels being pulled in the opposite direction. Be sure nothing is “clenched,” in particular: face, neck, jaw, shoulders, arms, and hands. Hips remain stable. Once in this position, focus on your breath: long, slow inhales and exhales of equal length.
How long you hold the plank is based entirely on your personal fitness level, but a beginner usually starts with 15 to 30 seconds. If you can maintain proper plank posture without your lower back sagging or your body starting to shake, you can probably add a little more time. Once you’ve reached 60 seconds, start doing a series of planks rather than trying to hold it longer and longer. You never want to sacrifice form.
When functioning in the real world, the human body is regularly called upon to multi-task. Therefore, it makes a whole lot of sense to bring that idea into your workouts as often as possible. For example, by adding a rowing action to your plank, you’ll work your back, arms, core, and glutes — all at the same time. Such an exercise is called a row plank.
To get a feel for this complex movement, try it first without weights. Start in the plank position that looks like the “up” portion of a push-up. Your legs are slightly wider than your hips to increase stability. Engage your core and glutes as you exhale and lift your right elbow upward in a rowing motion until it is higher than your torso. Return your right hand to the floor and perform a row with your left arm.
Next, grab a dumbbell of an appropriate weight and assume the modified plank position. This time, place a dumbbell on the mat below your chest. Grab the dumbbell with your right hand. Engage the core and glutes as you raise the dumbbell in your right hand. Return that dumbbell to the floor before switching to perform a row with your left arm. One row on each side constitutes one full rep. A good starting point might be 8-10 reps per arm for three sets.
Points to remember:
- The arm holding the dumbbell remains tight to the body
- The balancing arm is straight with the shoulder, elbow and wrist aligned
Note: The exercise advice presented above is not meant for anyone with contraindicated health problems. Please consult a medical or fitness professional.