If you’re newer to training or getting back into shape, I’m sure you’ve heard about core training. Perhaps you’ve heard about it in magazines or maybe your doctor recommended it.
So, that’s all great and you want to start working on your core strength – but you have no idea where to start and you’re not exactly sure what the “core” really means.
What Is the Core?
The “core” is a term used to describe just about everything on your body that isn’t your legs and arms. This means you can think of your glutes, hips, abdominal muscles, inner abdominal muscles, pelvic floor, and scapula as your core. Your core is where your power is generated in order to carry out any movement. While abdominal and inner abdominal muscles do play a large roll in core stability, they don’t make up the core all by themselves.
The core is made up of much more than the abdominal muscles. It includes the muscles of the glutes, hips, pelvic floor, and scapula.
A mistake many people make is to think of their core as only being their abs, and because of this they go about training their core in many ineffective ways. Traditional ab exercises like crunches and sit ups are often used in hopes of achieving a stronger core and more defined abdominals, but this is a terrible method. Not only does performing endless crunches and sit ups not strengthen your core or give you more defined abs, it can be hazardous to your spine.
“The crunching movement is a secondary function and one that’s not meant to be done at high volume due to the stress it puts on the discs of your spine.”
Furthermore, crunches don’t work your abs in the way these muscles were designed to perform. The main function of the abdominals is to support the spine and prevent it from spinning all the way around, breaking over backward, or flexing to the side. The crunching movement is a secondary function and one that’s not meant to be done at high volume due to the stress it puts on the discs of your spine.
In order to train the core effectively, we need to train all the muscles involved, starting slowly and building a foundation. These muscles need to work together as a team. Think of developing your core stability as pouring the concrete base for your home. This base provides structure and safety. It also cannot be rushed or overlooked. You wouldn’t build a home on soggy ground because your house would sink or fall apart. The same can be said for your body when it comes to developing your core.
5 Core and Abdominal Exercises for the Beginner
Most people are familiar with basic core exercises such as planks or side planks. While those are two excellent core exercises, I want to discuss a few under-used movements that go a long way in developing core strength and function. While they may seem gentle or simple, the importance of each of these exercises can’t be overstated for the beginner.
Watch the video for demonstrations of all five exercises listed below.
1. Tummy Vacuums
These are a simple, yet powerful core-conditioning exercise. They’re essential for anyone first starting out, especially for women who have had children, people who haven’t been active, or for those who sit for long periods of time.
“Regardless of which category you fall under, reestablishing TVA function is a must. For the beginner, tummy vacuums are one of the best ways to get it functioning again.”
Tummy vacuums help recondition the TVA (transverse abdominals) to brace the spine during movement. Basically, your TVA is an internal “weight belt” that needs to engage when you attempt to move or lift anything. When you’ve been inactive or pregnant, your TVA might not be functioning well or even be functioning at all. If you sit for long periods of time or don’t exercise, your TVA can become dormant and the body can forget how to engage it during activity.
Regardless of which category you fall under, reestablishing TVA function is a must. For the beginner, tummy vacuums are one of the best ways to get it functioning again.
2. Clam Shells
The strongest muscles on your body are your glutes – that’s your butt muscles. When they’re working they way they should, they’re a powerhouse team that help stabilize and put driving power into just about any athletic movement. When they’re not functioning well, it’s a recipe for weakness, back pain, and muscle imbalance.
Most beginning trainees have glutes that are not engaging to their fullest. For some people, the glutes might not be working well, for others their glutes might not be engaging at all. When this happens, your hip flexors take over, hamstrings become tight, and there’s a lot of pressure put onto the lower back. This makes just about any lower body exercise difficult, and it can further the problem of weak glutes rather than make it better.
This is where clam shells come into play. They’re a simple exercise that yield big results in getting the glutes activated again.
3. Dead Bugs
Another excellent core strength and trunk stabilizing exercise. Not only do they improve core conditioning, they also help build stability in the hips and trunk. Dead bugs can also help prepare people for crawling exercises. They build the coordination necessary for any cross crawling activity because they essentially mimics the hand and leg movement, only performed on your back rather than your hands and feet.
4. Band Anti-Rotation
Your abdominal muscles have three main functions: anti-rotation, anti-extension, and anti-lateral flexion. Most people include exercises that challenge anti-extension and anti-lateral flexion, like planks and side planks. What most people leave out is some kind of anti-rotation.
“Your abs need to be strong in all of their functions, and anti-rotation is no exception.”
That’s why I’m a big fan of resistance band anti-rotations. They’re simple, effective, and can be done at home or the gym. If you don’t have a resistance band, or want to up the difficulty, you could also use a cable machine. Your abs need to be strong in all of their functions, and anti-rotation is no exception.
5. Bird Dog
This is an excellent exercise for improving core stability because it hits multiple functions at once. The Bird Dog works both anti-extension and anti-rotation, improves coordination, and puts the glutes and shoulders to work. You can think of this exercise as a plank-superman hybrid. And much like the dead bug, it’s a great exercise to help prepare for cross-crawl exercises. If you’re looking for an exercise that delivers a lot of bang for your buck, this one just might be it.
Bird dog is an excellent exercise to improve stability and prepare for cross-crawling movements.
Putting It Together
Now that you have these great core exercises, where do you start? Well, I’ve put together a core-specific workout for you. You can use this at the end of your regular workout as a finisher, at the beginning as part of your warm up, or on its own as a separate gentle workout.
Perform each exercise back to back for the prescribed time and reps:
Bird Dog – 10-second holds, 8 reps per side
Band Anti Rotation – 10-second holds, 8 reps per side
Dead Bugs – 8 reps per side, alternating sides each rep
Clam Shell – 10-second holds, 10 reps per side
Tummy Vacuums – 5-second holds, 8 reps
If you’re performing this as a stand-alone workout, you can rest for one minute after you’ve worked through the list and then repeat the exercises two more times for a total of three circuits.
If you’re performing it as a warm up or at the end of your workout, then one circuit will do just fine, but feel free to do two or three circuits if you feel the need.
Lay a Strong Foundation
Training your core doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does have to be well rounded. Try adding these exercises or the workout above into your training routine and enjoy the rewards.
Remember, take it slow and you’ll lay the foundation for effective movement for life.