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13 of the best core exercises

A rock hard trunk improves performance and reduces aches and pains


By Chloe Gray 4th January 2024


What do you picture when you hear someone say 'core exercise'? Likely, you imagine the someone non-stop crunches or a plank being held for days on end. Sounds kind of dull, right?

Well, if you're swerving core finishers for that reason, you're going to be in for a shock. A weak core is responsible for poor form, fitness plateaus, less-than-perfect posture and increased pain. That's because your core stabilises your spine and your pelvis and is engaged and active when lifting and running, meaning if we want to perfect the way we move we need a strong midsection.


'If you think of your body like a house, your core muscles are the foundation bricks that hold everything in place. Core strength improves your posture and your pelvic floor control, as well as reduces your risk of injury or niggles like lower back pain,' explains Nancy Best, PT and founder of female fitness community, Ladies Who Crunch. 'Whatever exercise you’re doing, your performance will improve if you’ve built a solid core.'


What are the core muscles?


If you think your core only refers to your abs, you'd be wrong. Firstly, your stomach muscles actually made up of five seperate muscles, which are:


  • External obliques, which run down the side of the trunk

  • Internal obliques, the muscles that lie underneath the muscles in the trunk

  • Rectus abdominis, running down the front of your stomach

  • Transversus abdominis, your 'deepest' abdominal muscles that lie underneath the rectus abdominis

  • The pelvic floor

Then there's the fact that, despite there being lots of definitions for 'core' muscles - which some say include every muscle that isn't part of your limbs while others argue are the muscles that stabilise your spine - it's about more than just the front muscles of our stomach. Our 'core' actually wraps all the way around to our back, including muscles such as:


  • Lats

  • Erector spinae and multifidus, running down our spine

  • Glute min, med and max

'Your core is often described as your ‘trunk’ and this is because it’s a wraparound set of muscle groups that includes your pelvis, lower back, transverse abdominals and your hips,' says Best. 'A visible six pack isn’t the definitive signal of a strong core - it’s far more complex than that. For example, we can’t see the muscles in our pelvic floor that are a very important part of our deep core.'


How to build a strong core


Plot twist: you don't actually need to do core exercises to build a strong core. Your core should be used during all compound exercises, like squats and deadlifts, so consistently building strength in these exercises can build strength in your core muscles.


'Compound exercises are a brilliant way to build core strength. They often get overlooked because they don’t get marketed as specific ‘ab’ exercises, but arguably they are even more effective for improving core stability, as you’re recruiting multiple muscle groups in a movement,' says Best.

However, if a weak core is what's holding you back in these moves, then some isolation exercises that work the core muscles specifically are needed.


'I recommend combining dynamic compound exercises like squats with isometric core movements like planks, to challenge your body across multiple planes of motion,' says Best.


Best core exercises for beginners


These moves focus on activation and engaging the muscles - the most important


Deep core activation


1.Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Place your arms by your sides and keep your spine neutral.


2.Take a deep breath, then as you exhale, gently draw in the abdominal muscles. Pause before relaxing the muscles and repeating.


Glute bridges

1.Lie on your back with your knees bent, and feet flat on the floor. Your feet should be hip-width apart and around a hands-width from your hips.


2.Tilt your pelvis into a posterior tilt by pushing your pubic bone to the sky. Draw your ribs down towards your hips.


3.Push your heels into the floor to lift your hips up towards the ceiling, maintaining your pelvic tuck. Pause for a moment at the top before slowly lowering back down, one vertebra at a time, to the mat.


Best core exercises to fix a weak core

Dead bugs


1.Lie on your back on the floor with your arms and legs in the air - arms directly above shoulders and knees directly over hips bent 90 degrees.


2.Maintain contact between your low back and floor by drawing your belly button to your spine. Slowly and simultaneously lower your right leg until your heel nearly touches floor and your left arm until your hand nearly touches floor overhead.


3.Lift back to the stating point and repeat on the other side.


Planks


'There are so many variations available that you can do a plank in every workout and never gets dull,' says Best. Some of her favourites includes:


High planks


1.Place your hands on the floor, directly underneath your shoulders, and step your feet back so you're in a straight, diagonal line from your heels to your head.


2.Press into all your fingers to avoid dumping weight into your wrists, draw your belly button to your spine and try to draw your ribs to your pelvis to engage your core.


Low planks


1.Repeat exactly the same form as above, but with your forearms on the floor rather than your hands.


Side planks


1.Place your right hand or forearm on the floor and step your legs out behind you.


2.Take your other arm off the floor and rotate your body so you're side on. Make sure your hand or elbow is directly underneath your shoulder. Keep your left foot in front of your right or lift it on top of your right foot.


3.Pull up through the ribs and waist and draw your belly button to your spine.


4.Repeat on the other side.


Pelvic tilts


1.Lie on your back with your knees bent, and feet flat on the floor. Your feet should be hip-width apart and around a hands-width from your hips.


2.Keep your arms relaxed by your side and allow a natural curve in the lower spine so there should be a slight space between your lower back and the floor.


3.Exhale as you gently tilt your pelvis into a posterior position, curving your tailbone and pubic bone upwards. Feel your lower abs engage as the space between the floor and your spine closes.


4.Hold this position for five seconds, then inhale to release your pelvis back to a neutral position.


Bear crawls


1.Begin in a table top position with shoulders over wrists and your hips directly over your knees.


2.Draw your belly button to your spine, maintain a forward gaze and roll your shoulders back away from your ears as you hover your knees an inch or two off the floor.


3.Lightly lift your left hand and step it forwards a few inches while also moving your right knee slightly forward. Do the same thing with your other hand and knee so that you meet back in an equal all-fours position.


4.Keep your hips parallel with the floor as you move forwards and backwards - don't tip either side.


5.Once you have taken a few crawls forwards, repeat the action moving backwards.


Deadlifts


1.Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, holding a barbell or dumbbells in your hands gently in front of you.


2.Roll your shoulders back and down, brace your core and draw your belly button to your spine. Keep a small bend in your knees.


3.Keeping your head up and core engaged, send your hips back, imagining you're closing a door behind you. Move as far back as you can, feeling a stretch in your glutes, but without leaning your upper body forwards or arching your back.


4.Pull your hips back to the starting position.


Woodchops


1.Begin in a half kneeling position, with your left foot on the floor bent at a right angle and your right shin on the ground. Ensure your right hip is level with your left, rather than turned behind.


2.Hold a dumbbell with both heads in either hand and draw your belly button to your spine.


3.Take the dumbbell overhead towards the left, feeling a stretch through your right hip.


4.'Chop' the weight across the body down towards your right hip, rotating through your trunk.


5.Repeat for the desired reps and then swap sides.


Back extension


1.Lie on your stomach with your hands at your head and legs extended out straight.


2.Roll your shoulders back and down, lightly lift your head and collarbones off the floor, push your pubic bone into the ground and squeeze your glutes.


3.Squeeze your back to lift your upper body further off the floor. Hold at the top for five seconds.


4.Slowly lower back down.


Russian twists


1.Sit on the front with your feet in front of you, heels touching the ground and a slight bend in the knee.


2.Lightly lift your heels off the floor as you draw your belly button to your spine and brace your core to lean backwards. Hold your hands in front of you.


3.Slowly twist at the torso, turning from side to side.


Hanging knee tuck


1.Hang from a pull-up bar or functional rig with your feet off the ground.


2.Tilt your pelvis back slightly and tense your core as you bend your knees into your chest.


3.Hold then lower slowly back to the starting position.

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