Top 15 Exercises for Core Strength

August 15, 2019

"By strengthening your core, you’ll improve endurance and be able to exercise longer and with better form, without becoming injured or fatigued."

Today’s live is the first show in Dr. Nancy’s exercise series. In this series, Dr. Nancy Lin, PhD, will provide a deeper look at the best exercises for strength, posture, and heart health. Each show will be focused on a specific exercise benefit, and there will be something for everyone, regardless of fitness level. Today, Dr. Nancy will discuss the importance of having a strong core, especially as we age, and she’ll demonstrate her top 15 moves to building a stronger core. Don’t miss this super fun and informative show.

Video Highlights

  • 05:10: Why You Need Core Strength
  • 11:11: What is the Core?
  • 17:16: Top 12 Core Exercises
  • 18:46: Standing Crunch
  • 21:16: Crunches
  • 25:11: Bicycle crunch
  • 26:42: Plank
  • 31:05: Windshield Wiper
  • 33:58: Dead Bug
  • 36:10: Supermans
  • 38:12: C-Sit Tap
  • 40:18: Warrior Crunch
  • 42:40: Panther Shoulder Taps
  • 44:14: Bird Dog
  • 46:07: Glute Bridge or Bridge Pose
  • 47:48: Side Bend
  • 50:45: Clamshell
  • 52:30: Leg Lifts
  • 54:42: Stretch
  • 59:35: Wrap-Up

We’ve talked a lot about the importance of exercising as a way to improve heart health, reduce inflammation, and lower stress. We’ve mentioned doing low-impact exercises like going for a walk or jogging. We’ve also suggested going for a bike ride or taking up yoga, and mentioned the importance of strength training. Lifting weights 2 or 3 times per week can help improve bone density, joint flexibility and mobility, metabolism, and glucose levels

But your workout routine should also include some solid core work. Here’s why:

  • Your core muscles stabilize your spine, which helps keep you upright and able to move. That’s pretty important!
  • They improve balance by forcing the hips, stomach, pelvis, and lower back to work together.
  • Better posture — when your core is strong, you’ll automatically stand up straighter or sit properly. Those of you who sit at a desk all day should make sure you have a strong core. You’ll have better posture and won’t feel as achy from typing and taking calls all day.
  • Less back pain! This one is huge. If you’re someone who suffers from low back pain, core exercises can not only remedy the pain but can prevent it down the line. 
  • Daily tasks are easier. If you have a strong core, doing simple things like bending over to pick something up off the ground, turning to look behind you, or raising up to retrieve something from a high shelf will be much easier. 
  • And, most important of all — a strong core lowers you risk of injury. By strengthening your core, you’ll improve endurance and be able to exercise longer and with better form, without becoming injured or fatigued. 

What is the Core?

There are 35 muscle groups surrounding the core region, which includes the abdominals, the back, and the hips. Even some muscles of the shoulders and neck influence your core. So obviously, we’re not just dealing with the region where most of us think those six-pack abs should go. However, the main core muscles within that region include:

  • External obliques — these muscles are the largest of your abdominal muscles. They’re located on the sides of your stomach and are responsible for rotating at the waist and bending. 
  • Internal obliques — the internal obliques are deep within your abdominals, underneath the external obliques. They also help with rotation and bending at the waist. The internal obliques also work with the diaphragm and help you breathe. 
  • Transverse abdominis — these muscles stabilize your pelvis. It’s sometimes referred to as the “corset muscle” because women would wear corsets during the Victorian era to whittle their waists. They’re located on either side of your torso, and now, when people want a flat stomach and narrower waist, this is often what they target the most. 
  • Rectus abdominis — This is known as the “six-pack” muscle and it’s located right along the front of your abdomen. Like the internal obliques, the rectus abdominis also helps with breathing, and it also plays a vital role in posture. 
  • Erector spinae — this muscle, located in your back, helps you stand up after bending over.
  • Multifidus — this muscle is also in your back and helps support your spine.

Think of yourself as a tree — tall, strong, and sturdy, but able to sway and move in the wind. Like a tree, the core is made up of muscles that help stabilize you and muscles that help you move. 

Top 15 Core Exercises

The great thing about doing core exercises, is that you don’t need any equipment. You can do them anywhere, anytime, and without needing a lot of space. All you need is the tenacity and determination to do the work!

Standing Crunch

This is a great crunch variation, if you don’t like lying on the ground.

  • Stand up, resting one arm on a chair or the wall
  • Lift your leg to the side, keeping the knee bent, and contracting your abs so your knee is crunching toward your shoulder
  • Inhale to release, exhale to crunch. Repeat 8 - 12 times.

Crunches

This is a move you’re all probably familiar with. There still is no better move to help strengthen your core than the old stand-by, the classic Crunch.

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, hip distance apart. Place your hands behind your head with your elbow pointing straight out to the sides. 
  • With the core engaged, lift your head and shoulders off the ground, keeping the chin tucked in toward the chest slightly. Pause, there. 
  • Lower yourself back down and repeat, doing 8 to 12 repetitions. 
  • If you want to make this a little harder, you can do the same exercise but instead of holding your hands behind your head, grab a medicine ball or something similar, and hold it out in front of you.

Bicycle Crunch 

This is another classic exercise that is wonderful for working your obliques.

  • Start by lying on your back with your hands behind your head, elbows pointing out to the sides. 
  • Bring your legs into tabletop position and lift the head and shoulders. 
  • Keeping the right knee bent, bring the left elbow toward the right knee as you extend the left leg straight out. Come back to center and alternate sides — bringing the right elbow to the left knee as you extend the right leg straight out. 
  • Do 8 to 12 reps. 

Plank

This static core movement is a little more challenging, but again all you need is a floor. Plank is excellent because it’s challenging and forces you to engage your mind, as well as your abs. This move works everything, not just your core. It works the hamstrings, quads, glutes, arms, and shoulders, and it helps with balance and posture by forcing you to keep the hips stable.

  • You can do this with the forearms on the ground, or with your arms fully extended. You want your elbows right underneath the shoulders. You can either place your hands flat on the floor or ball them into fists. 
  • Your legs should be extended behind you with your toes on the floor. Try not to let your hips sag or to pop up above the shoulders either — you want one nice, long line of energy. Tucking the tailbone helps accomplish this. Your gaze should be about 3 to 5 inches on the floor out in front of you. 
  • Squeeze everything: your core, your glutes, and your quads. Hold for 30 seconds, working up to holding for an entire minute. 
  • For modified versions of the plank, you can walk your hands to the left or the right, or lift one hand and tap the opposite shoulder, then repeat on the other side.
  • If you feel pressure on your wrists, make sure to give them a break by rotating them and flexing them between sets.

Windshield Wiper

No, this isn’t a dance move. It is a great core move for your obliques. 

  • Begin on your back. Take your arms out to a T, straight off the shoulders, and place your legs in tabletop. If taking the arms out to a T proves too difficult, just slide your hands under your low back to make this easier. 
  • Press the low back into the ground and engage the core. 
  • Slowly lower the knees to the ground to your left, squeezing the legs together as best you can. Lift the legs back up to start, again, keeping the movement slow. 
  • Lower the knees toward the floor on your right and then bring them back to start. 
  • Repeat this move until you’ve done about 20 on each side. 

Dead Bug

This next one has a great name. It’s called “Dead Bug” and it is a core exercise that is very hot with personal trainers because it works all the core muscles at once. To perform the move:

  • Lie on your back with your arms reaching toward the ceiling and your legs in tabletop.
  • Press your lower back into the floor as you extend your right leg straight out and toward the floor, lowering your left arm overhead toward the floor at the same time. 
  • Make sure your core is engaged the entire time and you’re squeezing your glutes when you lower the leg and the arm.
  • Bring the leg and the arm back to the starting position and repeat on the other side — extending the left leg and right arm. Do about 16 to 24 reps. 

Supermans

This is one of Dr. Nancy’s favorite, most beneficial core exercises.

  • Start out lying on your belly, with your arms stretched out overhead.
  • As you inhale, engage the core bring your arms, shoulders, head, and legs up, as if you were flying.
  • Release on the exhale.
  • If it’s too hard to do with the arms straight out in front of you, put them in a cactus position with your elbows aligned with your shoulders, bent at 90 degrees.

C-Sit Tap

Next is something called the C-Sit Tap, and it’s one of Dr. Nancy’s favorite core moves, because not only does it work your transverse and rectus abdominis, but it can feel really good on your lower back and across the front of your chest. 

  • Sit on the floor with your knees bent and your heels on the floor, toes pointing toward the sky. Your arms should be out in front of you with the palms facing toward each other. 
  • Now, engage the core and lean back a little until you’re making a C shape with your body. You can round slightly, but make sure you’re pulling the navel toward your spine to protect your low back. 
  • Reach your right hand back, touching the floor behind you. Come back to start and repeat on the left side. Continue to alternate, doing as many as you can with proper form for about 30 seconds. Alternatively, hold your palms together in front of your sternum, and twist left to right.  
  • Another variation of this is the V-sit, which is similar except that the legs are extended upward instead, without the knees bent, and your back should be straight, sternum up.

Warrior Crunch

Let’s come up to standing for this next one, which is another oblique muscle workout, as well as a thigh and glute workout. It’s called the Warrior crunch.

  • Stand with your feet a little wider than shoulder distance apart with your toes turned out slightly. Place your hands behind your head with your elbows pointing straight out to the sides. Or, hold a towel with both hands and extend them upward.
  • Pull your navel in toward your spine and tuck the tailbone. Bend your knees and lower into what’s called a Sumo Squat. If you can, try and get your thighs parallel with the floor. 
  • Bending at the waist, move your right elbow toward your right knee. Come back up to start and move your left elbow toward your left knee. That’s 1 rep – do 8 to 12 reps.  

Panther Shoulder Taps

This one is an advanced move, but it’s so effective in strengthening your core. It’s challenging, and it works the arms a bit, too. 

  • Begin on your hands and knees, in table top position. 
  • Draw your navel toward your spine and tuck the tailbone slightly — you want a nice flat back. Another cue is to “corset” up the ribs — draw the sides in toward each other. 
  • Lift your knees a few inches off the floor and look out at the floor about 3 to 5 inches in front of you. 
  • Keeping the knees lifted, tap your right shoulder with your left hand and replace the hand on the floor. Tap your left shoulder with your right hand. 
  • Continue to alternate sides about 20 times on each side. 

Bird Dog

Not only does the next move help strengthen your core, but it helps to strengthen the low back, as well. 

  • Position yourself on all fours with the knees under the hips and the hands directly underneath the shoulders. Tuck the tailbone slightly, engage the core, and take your gaze about 3 to 5 inches out in front of you. 
  • Try to maintain balance as you extend your right arm and your left leg. Try not to pitch to the left as you lift – try to stay centered. Try to also maintain a straight line in your spine – don’t lift the arm and leg any higher than your hips and your shoulders, that will put excess strain on the body, which we do not want. 
  • Lower the arm and the leg and repeat on the other side, lifting the left arm and the right leg. 
  • Continue to alternate sides until you’ve done 8 to 12 reps. 

Glute Bridge or Bridge Pose

Now, core strength is important, but focusing only on your direct core is not enough. You need to strengthen your back and hips in addition to strengthening the abdominals, and it can be good to do them in the same workout.

  • Lay on your back with your feet flat on the floor, hip width apart. 
  • Place your arms down at your sides. 
  • Gently pull your navel toward your spine, and on an inhale, raise your hips until they are level with your knees, if possible. 
  • Hold for about 10 to 30 seconds and release. Do 3 of these, squeezing the glutes when you come up each time and hugging your knees toward each other to engage the inner thighs. 
  • If this is too easy, modify it by extending one leg, then alternating.

Side Bend

Another move that works the back, as well as the core is the Side Bend. As a bonus, you’re working the arms, too. This move is a little more advanced, but it works the obliques and deep core muscles. 

  • Begin in side plank with your right hand on the floor, directly under your right shoulder. If you need to, modify and place your right knee on the ground. Another modification is to bend the left knee and place the left foot flat on the floor in front of the right leg. 
  • Your left arm can either reach toward the ceiling or rest down at your side. 
  • Pull your navel toward your spine and lower your hips toward the ground. Lift them back up. That counts as 1 rep. 
  • Do about 8 to 12 reps on the right side before turning over and doing 8 to 12 reps on the left side. 

Clamshell

The final exercise is another one that helps strengthen the glutes, and works on stabilizing the hips and the pelvis. 

  • You’re going to be on your side for this one, too, but lay on the ground for this one and prop your head in your hand. Start by laying on your right side. You can place your left hand on the ground in front of you for extra support. 
  • Bend your knees so your feet are in line with your booty. 
  • Keeping the movement slow, lift your right knee toward the sky while the feet remain touching. Initiate the movement from your glutes, squeezing them as you lift the knee. 
  • Lower the right knee to meet the left. Do 8 to 12 reps on each side. 

Leg Lifts

For this, make sure that the lower back is pressed into the ground, so that you don’t hurt lower back.

  • Lying on your back, tuck your tailbone and engage your core so your lower back is flush with the ground.
  • Placing your hands behind your head, elbows out wide, lift your shoulders and head.
  • Lift your left leg, keeping it extended. Do 8 - 12 reps, then switch sides.
  • Alternatively, lift both legs at the same time as you inhale, and lower as you exhale. Don’t let your feet touch the ground when they come down, but hover a few inches above the ground.

Stretch

Any time you exercise, you want to stretch after you’re done. Here’s what you can do after your core workout. Roll over to lay on your stomach. Place your hands underneath the shoulders and your forehead on the ground. On an inhale, gently lift into a Cobra pose, feeling a nice stretch in your abdominals. Lower down. For a deeper stretch, put your palms in front of you, and lift your upper body up as you straighten your arms.

Press yourself back into Child’s pose and bring yourself up to sitting. Shift your weight to one side and have a seat on the ground, extending your legs out in front of you. Let’s give the legs and the back a nice stretch by coming into a forward fold. Forward folds are excellent for low back pain. Walk your hands toward your feet — it’s perfectly okay if you can’t reach them, and it’s okay to bend your knees — and keep a nice flat back. You should feel this in the hamstrings and the lower back. 

Wrap-Up

The abdominals were the star of today’s show, as we showed you the best moves you can do anytime, anywhere in order to develop a strong core. 

A strong core is vital to helping you maintain balance and stability, as well as to help you perform everyday tasks like walking, sitting, and reaching for things with proper alignment and posture. A strong core also helps prevent injury and low back pain, which brings us to the final point…

Remember that you can’t just strengthen the core — you want to perform exercises that also strengthen the back, hips, and thighs too. 

We hope you found this helpful! Now get your yoga mat out and start your core strength training.

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