Your core muscles are muscles that you can’t ‘see’, as opposed to muscles that are visible in shape beneath your skin. Encompassing your entire trunk, the core includes anything that connects with your pelvis and helps to stabilize you. These muscles, when strong, can give you good posture, help you maximize your large muscles, and help your internal organs work better. They guide how you move and they protect your spine. They’re also a key element to keeping back pain to a minimum.
Because core muscles tend to respond to pain or injury by shutting down and don’t automatically begin working properly after the initial pain goes away, they should be trained differently than muscles you can see. Core muscles are trained with an emphasis on slow control, while muscles on the outside, those you can ‘see’, generally need stretching. Core muscle training should emphasize balance, control and smoothness.
Exercises like traditional sit-ups work muscles you can ‘see’, which help very little in the prevention of back pain, rather than core muscles. We asked some of our providers and partners their favorite ways to strengthen the core:
- Max time Plank – Get into push up position. Instead of staying on your hands, place your elbows on the ground shoulder width apart. Hold for max time.
- Short 50–100m Sprints – This may not sound like a core exercise, but if done properly at about 85-90% max effort, you will be engaging your obliques during the run.
- Mountain Climbers – Get into push up position. Pull your right knee in towards left elbow across your chest, pause and return it to push up position. Then repeat on the left side. Do 3 sets of 20.
Dalissia Burke, PA-C; OrthoCarolina Foot & Ankle Institute
- "Core" is not doing a million crunches until your lower back kills you. Core is the center of your strength and stability! Variations of planks, yoga, push-ups all engage and strengthen the abdomen and lower back.
Dana Dempsey, PA-C; OrthoCarolina Hand Center
- Beginner Plank with Leg Lifts – hold forearm plank with 5 second alternating leg lifts. Lift right leg for 5 seconds, switch to left leg for 5 second. Do one minute total, taking a 20–30 second rest and repeat.
- Intermediate/Advanced Plank with Push-Up – push up into a side plank. Holding a high plank, lower into a push-up. As you reach the top of the motion turn into a side plank alternating between the right and the left. Sequence is: push-up, right side plank, push-up, left side plank. Repeat! Do 20 push-ups with planks.
Carrie Kaschak, FlyBarre Manager
- Circular Plank – Start in a plank position and hold your abs tight. Draw your right knee in, circle it clockwise, and then counterclockwise while keeping the rest of your body stationary. Aim for 5-10x per leg.
- Swiss Ball Plank – Put your feet on a Swiss Ball, forearms on ground with your face towards the ground, tighten core area and hold this position as long as you can. Do not arch your back. A variation is to put your forearms on the ball and your feet on the ground.
Tim Pysell DrHA, MMSc., PA-C, AT, DFAAPA; Director of Physician Assistants
- Supermans – Lie face-down on the floor with your legs together straight behind you; arms straight and extended above your head. As you hold your neck stationary and your limbs straight, lift your legs and arms toward the ceiling to form a slight curve in your back. It may feel awkward but this strengthens the back and core, and you will feel a stretch in the back.
- V-sit – From a seated position, contract your abs and core, lifting the legs up to a 45-degree angle. Hold your arms straight forward or as high towards your shins as you can, keeping good posture with your core. Hold the V position as long as you can. Lower your arms and legs towards the floor, keeping your core engaged. Slow is okay.
Jake Robbins, former Major League Baseball player, former Charlotte Knights pitcher and President of Showcase Baseball
- Bird Dogs – Start on all 4s. Reach your right arm in front, then left leg out behind you, engaging through your core to balance. Hold for 8 seconds. Repeat on both sides 3-4x. Advanced: once you lengthen arm and leg, draw knee to elbow under your body - repeat 8x. Repeat on other side.
- Advanced V-sit – Sit and lift your feet off the ground, reaching arms diagonally in front, extending legs to straight, slowly lower towards the ground drawing arms behind the head. Roll down for a 4-count without fully laying on the ground, then bring yourself back to seated. 5x
Sarah Stankavage, FlyBarre Instructor, Flywheel Sports
Special thanks to Chris Dollar, PT, DPT, Coordinator of Clinical Education, OrthoCarolina-Eastover Physical Therapy for his contributions to this article.