Core strength has been a buzz topic in the fitness world for a number of years now with everyone from personal trainers and physical therapists to medical doctors recommending abdominal exercises to those suffering from back, neck and shoulder pain.
But you might be surprised to know that most people are doing it wrong and actually causing more posture problems, pain, and tight muscles. Eek!
So should you stop doing core strengthening exercises altogether? Well, no. Core strength is important for good posture, a strong spine and overall physical health. But you want to make sure you’re doing the right exercises to strengthen your core without causing more damage to your body.
Here are my top three core strengthening exercises that everyone should be doing:
No. 1 Overhead Carry
Why It Works
The whole point of core strength is to support your body in movement. Basically, you want whatever you’re doing in the gym to translate to real life, and frankly, exercises that isolate the muscles of your trunk don’t really help you schlepp three bags of groceries, a toddler, and a 7 lb laptop from 2006 up three flights of stairs, balancing the whole lot while you fish your keys out of your bag to pry open the front door.
A truly strong core allows movement to travel through it. There is a difference between strong and resilient and just plain braced. A braced core will restrict spinal mobility, which ultimately leads to stiffness, back pain, muscle spasms and potentially even spinal injuries like bulging discs and nerve impingements.
Carrying a weight overhead teaches your body how to maintain core integrity while simultaneously allowing movement to travel through your trunk.
How to Do It
Choose a weight that’s challenging but doable for about 20-40 yards. Anything will work for this practice: dumbbells, kettlebells, weight plates, cans of soup. Get creative!
Put one weight in each hand and then either put both hands overhead or position one arm overhead and let the other hang at your side as though you were carrying a bucket.
Then, just go for a walk! Keep your abs engaged as you walk to support your lower back, drawing your belly button inward and upward slightly, but don’t brace so tightly that your hips get stiff and make walking difficult.
Walk 20 yards and if you have your hands in the alternating position, switch sides so the down hand is now carrying weight overhead. Walk another 20 yards. Do 3-5 sets, resting as needed and increasing the distance as you get stronger.
Use a liquid weight. Filling a vessel with water and carrying overhead adds additional instability that your core has to accommodate. The water sloshes as you walk, making whatever you’re carrying effectively much heavier than its scale weight.
Plus, it’ll whittle inches off your waist! Back when I was competing in kettlebell sport, I would warm up by overhead carrying a keg filled with water around the block. I have never had such a well-defined waist; this exercise really targets your obliques. And no, I never did so much as one sit up, crunch, dead bug, or other such “core exercise.”
Kegs are a good option if you can find an old one (plus, fun for a few double takes from the neighbors). Start with one gallon of water and work up. You could also use those plastic five gallon water jugs, or even a milk jug in either hand.
Sand bags (or grain bags, cat litter, dog food, etc.) would also be a good challenge as they’re also an unstable weight that adds additional difficulty.
No. 2 Side Plank
Why It Works
I’m not a huge fan of plank-planks, as in regular planks on your elbows or hands. I know, sacrilege, right?! Planks are the holy grail of core strength. So, why am I against them?
There are two reasons I don’t love plank-planks, as I call them. One is that they strengthen the anterior line of the body — the flexion line (the muscles that would contract to curl you into the fetal position). Most people are already short on this line due to our flexion addicted society (sitting, way too much sitting).
The second reason is that it’s a static pose. See: overhead carry, above. A truly strong core — not just a tense core — translates movement from the legs through the trunk, shoulders and out the top of the head. A braced core just doesn’t allow this to happen, and that’s where I see a lot of back pain starting.
But side plank? Well now, that’s different. Yes, it’s still a static pose, and for that I’ll demote a few merits. But it’s a good pose because it targets muscles that rarely see any use in modern daily life. It does, in effect, “turn them on,” teaching the brain how to engage the muscles along your sides.
This is helpful because it corrects a common muscle imbalance — the over-reliance on hip flexors and stomach muscles for support and locomotion. And, in fact, one study, albeit small and somewhat poorly conducted, showed that daily side planks reduced scoliosis curvature by around 40%.
What we can glean from this is that activating the muscles along the sides of your spine helps to promote spinal integrity by teaching your body how to hold itself in a more balanced position. This ultimately does translate to better posture in your daily life because it means your muscles will work to keep you upright of their own accord without you having to nanny them with constant attention.
How to Do It:
Side planks are, fortunately, easy for anyone to do (barring injury or other contraindication, of course, check with your doc first in that case) and require no equipment.
Simply get on the floor. Lie on your side and place one hand on the floor under your shoulder. Lift your hips off the floor, stacking your feet on top of each other.
If you can’t support your body on your hand, you can do side plank on your elbow and forearm instead, and if that’s still too much, balance on your knees instead of your feet.
Hold for three sets of 30 seconds on each side, working up to at least a minute at a time. While some doctors suggest only side planking on the weaker side to correct imbalances, I’m not a fan of asymmetrical training.
Instead, only side plank for as long as you can on your weaker side, even if that’ means it’s easy on the strong side. Eventually, the two sides will catch up and be more balanced.
No. 3 Kettlebell Windmill
Why It Works
Most “core” strengthening exercises get conflated with “abdominal bracing,” but as I’ve mentioned, your core needs to be strong, and at the same time, to move. Strength is the ability of a muscle to contract — with control — along its entire length.
The kettlebell windmill is the ultimate exercise for developing such strength + mobility. It both engages your abdominal, back and spinal muscles and also increases hip flexibility. And it feels sooooo good!
This is absolutely the exercise you want to do to avoid that dreaded “I threw my back out” moment where you reach down to swipe something innocuous off the floor like a child’s toy and suddenly there’s a ridiculously sharp stabbing pain your back and you’ve lost the ability to stand up straight.
We don’t want any of that, so grab yourself a kettlebell and get to windmilling!
How to Do It:
Technically you can do this exercise with a dumbbell, too. I prefer kettlebells both because they sit well in your hand and because the weight hangs off center on the back of your arm, upping the ante for your core. It’s more difficult to support an off-center weight. But really, when has your bag of groceries ever been perfectly balanced? The world is an imperfect place, and we should train for it.
Grab your weight — most people will be able to start with a kettlebell ranging from 8 kilos (16 lbs) to 12 kilos (26 lbs). The right weight should be a little challenging to balance but not so heavy that you feel like you’re going to drop it.
Place the weight in one hand and raise the arm overhead. Space your feet wider than shoulder width. If the weight is in your right hand, shift your weight over your right foot and slowly lower your torso to the left until your left hand can touch your left foot. Return to upright.
Check out this video for a visual.
Exercises to Avoid
A lot of core exercises technically target the core, but are a waste of time. Some don’t translate to better function in daily life. Others are downright dangerous because they simply contribute to isometric bracing that, over time, results in spinal degeneration.
Planks are on the list, as mentioned above, as are most types of sit ups, leg lifts, crunches and other such “ab exercises.” You can find a more complete guide to core strength as it relates to posture in the Perfect Posture for Life ebook. Once you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, it’s a lot easier to select the right exercises and strike the ones that are time wasters.2