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The Core Three: Our Favorite Core Exercises

As a physical therapist assistant, my work day is not complete without discussing the importance of core strength. There tends to be some confusion about what the “core” is and the proper way to strengthen it. The issue with strengthening the core is that there is no cookie cutter strengthening program. Building a strong core is not a “one size fits all” type of gig, however, there are some common themes we like to follow when it comes to building an effective strengthening program.

Theme Number One: Avoid Sit Ups

Core strengthening is not endless rounds of sit-ups. When people think of strengthening their core, their minds automatically jump to crunches. Crunches and sit-ups isolate the rectus abdominus (the muscle group responsible for the ever sought after six pack). The error with this exercise is that it can place excessive force on our lumbar discs, potentially leading to a back injury. This exercise also allows our body to cheat by using our hip flexors. Over-recruitment of the hip flexors places further pressure on your back, yikes!

Instead of sit-ups, try planking instead. To start planking, we recommend trying this exercise on your elbows and knees. The goal is to hold the plank for up to sixty seconds while maintaining good form. Start out by holding for ten seconds, repeat six times. As you get stronger, you can increase your hold time, aiming to get up to sixty seconds. Progression includes moving onto your toes and elbows. If you have mastered the sixty seconds on your toes and elbows, you can make this exercise more challenging by picking up one arm or one leg.

Common errors we see:
1. Sway or arch in the low back
2. Feet, knees, or elbows are too close together
3. Neck bent looking down
4. Hips up too high (rear end up in the air)

How you fix it:
1. Lift your hips up, tighten your stomach muscles to tuck your bottom down
2. Keep feet, knees, & elbows shoulder width apart
3. Keep neck neutral by looking at your hands
4. Use a mirror to keep hips level with shoulders

Theme Number Two: Be Well Rounded

The core is more than just your stomach muscles. Your hips, glutes, pelvic floor, and spinal muscles make up your core along with your abdominal (stomach) muscles. Therefore, an effective strengthening program needs to include exercises which target all of these muscles together. One of my favorites include the bridge. Bridging activates the pelvic floor (responsible for stabilizing your spine, promoting good urinary control, and aids in our reproductive health), your glutes, spinal stabilizers, and abdominal muscles. Talk about a bang for your buck exercise!

To correctly perform this exercise, start by laying on your back with your knees bent. Place a belt or resistance band around your thighs just above the knee. Press out into the belt, press into the floor or bed with your feet to lift your hips off the ground. You should be squeezing with your glute muscles and avoid arching through your back. The goal will be to also build up to a minute,just like the planks. Once you are able to complete sixty seconds, you can make this harder by lifting one foot up.

Common errors we see:
1. Arching through the low back
2. Feet too close togeter
3. Knees caving in or splaying out
4. Hips not high enough

How you fix it:
1. Press through your feet and squeeze your bottom
2. Start with feet shoulder width apart
3. Press into belt, make sure belt is not too narrow or wide
4. Use a mirror to keep your legs and torso in a straight line

Theme Number Three: Train to Avoid Injury

You want your core to protect you from injury. The best way to do this is to incorporate exercises which mimic our daily lives. The core’s main job is to keep our body stable during movement. Your core is the key to being able to bend over to put on shoes, to lift that box into the shelf over your head, or for getting up the stairs to go to bed. There is one exercise which will help you perform all of your daily tasks with ease: LUNGES. Lunges are effective at activating your hips, glutes, abs, back extensors, and thighs.

You can lunge in multiple different directions to activate different muscle groups within your legs and core muscles. We recommend starting this exercise in repetitions of ten, building from one set up to three as your get stronger. The key to completing this exercise correctly is to make sure you do not let your knee translate too far forward (going past the toes), keep the heel of the lunging leg down, and keep your opposite leg straight no matter which direction you choose (front, side, or twist demonstrated below).

Common errors we see:
1. Sway or arch in the low back
2. Knee coming too far forward
3. Back or side leg bending

How you fix it:
1. Keep your back straight by allowing your chest to come slightly forward (leading with your nose), driving your hips back
2. As you step forward, make sure you keep your weight on the WHOLE foot, not allowing it to move to the ball of the foot
3. Keep your non-lunging leg straight, dont let it bend when you push off to return to start

A strong core is essential for injury prevention with everyday activities. Add these three exercises into your weekly strength routine to keep you strong, happy, and healthy!

References:

1. “Core Stability Exercise Principles : Current Sports Medicine
Reports.” LWW,
journals.lww.com/acsm-csmr/Fulltext/2008/01000/Core_Stability_Exercise_Principles.14.aspx.
2. “Lumbar/Core Strength and Stability Exercises.” Princeton University
Athletic Medicine , Lumbar/Core Strength and Stability Exercises.

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