Core Exercises: Understanding Your Core

Core exercises are a necessity for strengthening your core. Did you know that your core is where all movement in your body originates? When you run, walk, ride a bike, or skip across a room — your core muscles are hard at work, keeping you upright, stabilizing your body as your weight shifts, and absorbing impact from ground forces.

A strong core creates the stabilization necessary to carry your groceries or pick up your grandchild — not to mention going the distance while playing tennis or jogging.

Your body's "core" — the area around your trunk and pelvis — is where your center of gravity is located. When you have good core stability, the muscles in your pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen work in harmony. They provide support to your spine for just about any activity.

Over time, a weak core can make you susceptible to poor posture and injury. For instance, the weaker your core muscles, the more likely you are to experience lower back pain. Strong core muscles keep you protected from such injuries.

Identifying Your Core Muscles

Learning how to identify and properly activate your core muscles is the first step in properly performing core exercises. By enhancing your core strength, you'll be on your way to greater fitness.  

Core strengthening and core exercises are about working your muscles from the inside out. The muscles targeted in core exercises are those in your trunk — they're layered, overlapping and connected to each other.

The muscle most targeted in core exercises is your transversus abdominis — the muscle deep in your abdomen that encircles your trunk like hoops on a barrel.

To engage the transversus abdominis, try coughing. The muscle you feel contracting is the transversus abdominis. Next, visualize pulling your bellybutton in toward your spine. These are small moves, but by learning the proper way to contract your transversus abdominis — and to keep it contracted — you'll gain the most benefit from core exercises.

The Basics - Before Getting Started

Rather than isolate each muscle group in your trunk, the best exercises for your core are those that get your whole system working together at the same time. Focus on the quality of your moves rather than the quantity. You'll gradually build up to a greater number of repetitions. When starting out, take it slow and learn how to properly execute each exercise. Body position and alignment are crucial with core exercises. Proper technique is very important. 

You don't need any equipment to get started on core exercises. You should have a rolled towel or small pillow on hand to support your head or lumbar spine in some of the core exercises. When you first start out on core exercises, I suggest a lot of isometric core strengthening.

When you perform isometric exercises, your muscle fibers neither shorten, as they do in weightlifting, nor lengthen, as they do in stretching. Instead they remain the same. The force you exert on your muscles is created by using your own weight and strength to create resistance. The muscle contraction you feel in your chest, when you press your palms together in front of your body at chest level, is an isometric contraction.

The final thing to keep in mind is your breathing. Breathe freely while doing each of the exercises in your core exercises workout. The ideal is to get into a sequence of contracting your muscles, holding that contraction, and then breathing through it all.

Focus your attention on diaphragmatic breathing, also called “belly breathing”. This means that as you inhale while lying on your back, your belly raises up toward the ceiling. Then you relax as you exhale. This takes practice. You may need several sessions of practicing proper breathing before running through a series of core exercises.

After you've mastered the proper breathing technique, start working on your core exercises.  

Let’s Get Fit To The Core

You can work to strengthen your core muscles just as you would your biceps or triceps to strengthen your arms. Here are a few sample exercises:

The Crunch

Lie on your back and place your feet on a wall, so that you have a 90-degree bend at your knees and hips. Cough to activate your transversus abdominis, and keep it contracted throughout the exercise. Imagine two dots in a vertical line on your lower abdomen. Try to pull those dots closer together — like a scorpion's tail curling up. Use your trunk muscles to raise your head and shoulders off the floor. You don't need to raise more than a few inches. Return to your starting position. Breathe freely and deeply throughout the exercise.

Avoid locking your hands behind your head and pulling your head forward as you raise yourself up. This could strain your neck. Instead try crossing your arms on your chest.

Leg And Arm Lifts

Start on your hands and knees. Make sure your hands are directly below your shoulders, not out in front of your body. Keep your head and neck in alignment with your back. Think about your core muscles — cough, contract and hold them tight. Raise one arm off the floor and reach forward with it. Hold for three deep breaths and return it to the floor. Now try it using your other arm. Do the same thing with each leg, pushing them out to your rear.

For a more advanced version of this exercise, raise one arm and the opposite leg at the same time. Do this on both sides. When raising your leg, be careful not to let your pelvis roll to the side. Keep your hips centered and focus on tightening your trunk muscles to hold you in place.

Double Hip Rotation

Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent and your back in a neutral position. Cough to activate your transversus abdominis, and keep it contracted throughout the exercise. Keeping your shoulders on the floor, let your knees fall slowly to the left. Go only as far as your body will comfortably allow you to go — you should feel no pain, only a stretch. Use your trunk muscles to pull your legs back up to the starting position. Repeat the same movement, letting your knees fall to the right.

Single-leg abdominal press

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your back in a neutral position. Cough to activate your transversus abdominis, and keep it contracted throughout the exercise.

Raise your right leg off the floor so that your knee and hip are bent at 90-degree angles and rest your right hand on top of your right knee. Push with your hand while using your abdominal muscles to pull your knee toward your hand. Hold for three deep breaths. Return to the starting position. Repeat this exercise using your left hand and left knee. Keep your arm straight and avoid bending more than 90 degrees at your hip.

With each of these exercises, coordinate your breathing with the activation of your transversus abdominis. If you don't, you won't benefit from these exercises.

Work your core on a fitness ball

Using a fitness ball provides an extra challenge to your balance and stability — and it can spice up your regular fitness routine.

Squat and reach

Hold the fitness ball in front of you so that your arms are parallel to the floor. Bend your knees and reach out. Keep your back straight, and be careful not to let your knees extend beyond your feet. You should be able to see your shoelaces if you look down.

From the starting position, cough to activate your transversus abdominis. Rotate your trunk and reach with the ball toward your left. Hold for three deep breaths — about five to eight seconds. Use your trunk muscles to pull yourself back to the starting position. Rotate to your right. Repeat 10 times to each side.

Abdominal sit back

Sit up tall on the ball with your feet resting on the floor, about hip-width apart. Keep your back straight and your head in alignment. Fold your arms across your chest so that your hands rest on the front of your opposite shoulders. Cough to activate your transversus abdominis, and slowly lean backward until you feel your abdominal muscles kick in. Remember to keep breathing through the exercise. Hold this position for three deep breaths before returning to your starting position.


Lie on your back on the floor with your legs resting on top of the ball. Cough to activate your transversus abdominis. Raise your hips and buttocks off the floor into a bridge. Hold this position for three deep breaths before returning to your starting position. Besides your trunk muscles, you'll really feel the muscles along your backside — your gluteals and hamstrings — engage to keep you in place.

Side exercise

Lie on your right side, with the ball between your legs. Tighten your trunk muscles and raise your legs, with the ball, a few inches off the floor. Hold for three deep breaths before returning to your starting position.

Protect your neck by resting your head on your hand. If you find that places too much strain on your neck, you might want to try straightening your arm along the floor and resting your head directly on your arm. This will remove any pressure on the side of your neck.

Stick with it

Try to do your core exercises at least three times a week. If you work your core muscles to fatigue during an exercise session, wait at least a day between workouts to allow the muscles to recover.

Remember that strengthening workouts — even core exercises for strengthening — are just one part of a complete fitness program. Include aerobic exercise, strength training for your limbs, and flexibility training to round out your regimen.


Recommended Resource Sites

Exerstrider - Walking poles from Tom Rutlin. A good site for poles and information about pole/nordic walking. As the name implies, this site specializes in equipment used for yoga. They have excellent prices, and sell some very good exercise mats, along with other helpful equipment, books and videos. This is another site similar to Perform Better. They have a great variety of exercise equipment that you may find difficult to get at regular stores. This site has equipment that is more medically based. It may be a good alternative if you're looking for physical therapy equipment or other things that a medical person may have recommended.

ActiveForever 88x31 banner This site really has little to do with fitness or nutrition, but it is one of my favorite sites. They carry everything from electronics to books. Their prices are some of the most competitive on the internet, and they often offer free shipping. If I am looking to buy almost anything, I check them out first. This link is only for US and Canadian buyers. I have a lot of trouble finding shoes that fit me right (weird foot problems), but this site often works for me. They not only have very competitive prices and a great variety of shoes, but they offer f.r.e.e shipping and f.r.e.e returns.


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