“I train my core, I do tons of crunches!”
In the gym I often hear people say, “I train my core” and then watch them perform dozens and dozens of crunches, different variations of crunches followed by more crunches. So what exactly is the core? And how do you properly train it?! Is it wrong to do hundreds of crunches for a strong core?
Let’s begin with a little anatomy to really break down what true health and fitness professionals mean when they refer to “the core”. The core muscles can be thought of as a box. The roof of the box is your diaphragm, the sides of the box are comprised of the Internal/External Obliques, the front of the box is the abdominal muscles, the floor is made up of the pelvic floor muscles and finally the back of the box is made up of the paraspinals and gluteal muscles. Do you really think crunches from any angle could hit all these muscles?!
True core stabilization exercises are those that maintain strict form and require you to maintain a stable position for an extended period of time. The reason the “core” has become so popular is because having a strong core is associated with improved posture, decreased risk of lower back injury, improved athletic performance, as well as improvements in body awareness and movement efficiency.
The following 5 exercises are the best to challenge multiple muscles at the same time, help protect your spine, and help keep that mid-section trim.
The prone plank is the king of all core stabilization exercises. The plank when performed correctly engages all of your deep core muscles that surround your spine, the 6 pack muscles, as well as your shoulders and glutes.
To Perform: Begin in the push-up position with elbow and wrists in line with your shoulders. Bend your elbows to 90 degrees, putting your weight through your forearms. The goal is to hold your body in a straight line or like a wooden plank. Hold the position for 20-30 seconds breathing deeply throughout. Repeat 3x daily. For less of a challenge hold for less time, for a greater challenge hold for as long as possible!
2. Side Plank:
If the prone plank is the king of all core exercises then the side plank is his queen! The side plank places extra emphasis on the oblique muscles. These muscles are key to engage for all athletes who perform any kind of rotational movements.
To Perform: Lie on your side, with your elbow in line with your shoulder, legs straight. Raise your hips until your body forms a straight line from your ankles to your shoulders. Make sure to engage your gluteal muscles to maintain that straight line. Hold position for 20-30 seconds breathing deeply throughout. Repeat 3x per side.
3. Reverse Table (Table Top Pose):
This exercise is a great stability exercise with emphasis on the deep abdominal muscles as well as the gluteal muscles. The gluteal muscles provide a lot of support for our legs and lower back during activities like walking and running. In addition you get the benefits of stretching your shoulder joints, chest, and the front of your thigh muscles.
To Perform: Begin in the seated position with hands facing forward slightly behind your shoulders and knees bent with toes facing forward. Press through your palms and heels lifting your hips from the floor so that your back is as parallel to the ground as possible. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds and repeat 3x breathing deeply throughout the exercise.
4. Spider Man Plank:
Aside from having an awesome name, the Spiderman plank is an excellent exercise that tests your deep core stabilizers as well as dynamic mobilizers. This exercise forces you to stabilize your body while moving one of your legs which is very tough when done correctly.
To Perform: Begin in the Push-up position, Bring one knee to the outside of your shoulder, hold for 3 seconds then return to starting push up position. Alternate sides or do one side at a time for a total of 10 repetitions per side and repeat for 3 sets.
(Perform the below exercise in Push up Position first, if too easy come into prone plank as demonstrated in the video)
5. Locust Pose:
This exercise is ideal to strengthen the Lower back muscles, glutes, as well as the abdominals. This pose engages all of these muscles simultaneously and enables you to cover a lot of ground at once!
To Perform: Lie face down with arms at your side, and tops of your feet pressed firmly into the ground. Take a deep breath in, exhale and lift your chest and arms off of the floor all while reaching your arms down towards your feet. Hold this position for 5-10 seconds and repeat 10x. (Just lift chest from floor to start, if too easy lift legs as well.)
These are challenging exercises, but give them a shot and your core won’t be disappointed!
Dr. Jeremy L. Cohen, PT, DPT PES is the Owner/Director of Physical Therapy and Performance Enhancement Specialist at Mindful Movement Physical Therapy in Staten Island, New York.