Edward Phillips, M.D.

Build your core muscles for a healthier, more active future

Many exercise programs these days spotlight the ever-present abs (abdominal muscles) but pay little attention to the other muscles that form the body’s core. Yet building up all of your core muscles is essential for staying strong and flexible and improving performance in almost any sport. It’s also vital for sidestepping debilitating back pain.

Your core includes your back, side, pelvic, and buttock muscles, as well as the abdominal muscles. The core forms a sturdy central link between your upper and lower body. Much like the trunk of a tree, core muscles need to be strong yet flexible. A weak or inflexible core drains power from many movements and can make it downright difficult to do some.

Benefits of a stronger core

No matter where motion starts, it ripples upward and downward through the core. That means a strong, flexible core underpins almost everything you do.

Everyday acts. Bending to put on shoes or pick up a package, turning to look behind you, sitting in a chair, or simply standing still are just a few of the many mundane actions that rely on your core. Even basic activities of daily living, like bathing or dressing, call on core muscles.

On-the-job tasks. Jobs that involve lifting, twisting, and standing all rely on core muscles. But less obvious tasks — like sitting at your desk for hours — engage your core, too. Phone calls, typing, computer use, and similar work can make back muscles surprisingly stiff and sore, particularly if you’re not strong enough to practice good posture and aren’t taking breaks when needed.

A healthy back. Low back pain can be prevented by exercises that promote well-balanced, resilient core muscles. When back pain strikes, a regimen of core exercises is often prescribed to relieve it, coupled with medications, physical therapy, or other treatments if necessary.

Sports and other activities. Biking, running, swimming, golf, tennis or other racquet sports, baseball, volleyball, kayaking, rowing, and many other athletic activities are powered by a strong core. Sexual activity also calls for core power and flexibility.

Housework, fix-it work, and gardening. Bending, lifting, twisting, carrying, hammering, reaching overhead — even vacuuming, mopping, and dusting spring from, or pass through, the core.

Balance and stability. Your core stabilizes your body, allowing you to move in any direction, even on the bumpiest terrain — or stand in one spot without losing your balance. Viewed this way, core exercises can lessen your risk of falling.

Good posture. Good posture trims your silhouette, projects confidence, lessens wear and tear on the spine, and allows you to breathe deeply. By contributing to slouching, weak core muscles undermine these benefits.

Weak, tight, or unbalanced core muscles can undermine you in any of these realms. So while it’s important to build a strong core, it’s unwise to aim all your efforts at developing rippling abs. Overtraining abdominal muscles while snubbing muscles of the back and hip can set you up for injuries and cut athletic prowess.

Core exercise examples

In Core Exercises, a Harvard Medical School Special Health Report that I helped develop, we worked with personal trainers to develop a series of exercises to strengthen core muscles. Writer Annmarie Dadoly wrote about the right and wrong ways to do three core-building exercises: lunges, squats, and planks.

Here are four of the nine exercises from the Vertical Standing Core Workout, one of the six complete workouts detailed in the report.

Side leg lift

Side leg lift

Reps: 10 per leg
Sets: 1–3
Intensity: Light to moderate
Tempo: 2–2
Rest: 30–90 seconds between sets

Starting position: Stand up straight with your feet together and your hands on your hips.

Movement: Exhale as you lift your left leg straight out to the side until your foot is about six inches off the floor, then return to the starting position. Keep your hips evenly aligned throughout. Finish all reps, then repeat with the right leg.

Tips and techniques:

  • Keep your spine neutral and your shoulders down and back.
  • Tighten the buttock on your standing leg for stability throughout the lift.

 

Knee lift

 Knee lift

Reps: 10 per leg
Sets: 1–3
Intensity: Light to moderate
Tempo: 2–2
Rest: 30–90 seconds between sets

Starting position: Stand up straight with your feet together. Put your hands out to the sides, elbows slightly bent.

Movement: Lift your right knee toward the ceiling as high as is comfortable, then lower the foot to the floor. Finish all reps, then repeat with the left leg.

Tips and techniques:

  • Keep your chest lifted and your shoulders down and back.
  • Tighten your abdominal muscles throughout.
  • Squeeze the buttock of your standing leg for stability.

 

Alternating reverse lunges

 Alternating reverse lunges

Reps: 10
Sets: 1–3
Intensity: Moderate to high
Tempo: 2–2
Rest: 30–90 seconds between sets

Starting position: Stand up straight with your feet together and your hands at your sides.

Movement: Step back on the ball of your right foot and sink into a lunge, bending your knees and bringing your hands up in front of your chest, elbows bent. Your left knee should align over your left ankle, and your right knee should point to the floor. Exhale as you return to the starting position. Repeat with your left leg. This is one rep. Continue to alternate legs as you finish all reps.

Tips and techniques:

  • Keep your weight evenly distributed between the right and left foot.
  • In the lunge position, your shoulder, hip, and rear knee should be aligned.
  • Keep your spine neutral, and your shoulders down and back.

 

Plié

 Plie

Reps: 10
Sets: 1–3
Intensity: Moderate
Tempo: 2–2
Rest: 30–90 seconds between sets

Starting position: Stand up straight with your feet wider than your hips. Turn your toes slightly outward (rotating from the hips) and rest your hands on your thighs.

Movement: Keep your back straight as you bend your knees and lower your buttocks toward the floor. Stop before your buttocks reach knee level. Exhale as you return to the starting position.

Tips and techniques:

  • Keep your knees aligned over your ankles when in the plié position.
  • Keep your spine neutral, body upright, and your shoulders down and back as if you have a rod in your spine.
  • Tighten abdominal muscles throughout.

Comments:

  1. Jillian Michaels

    Really interesting workout.

  2. Javier

    Yoga all the way!

  3. Greg

    I just ran across this article and found it very informative and useful.
    For many years I lived a very sedentary life style so I can relate to it
    on a personnal level.
    As you mentioned, even normal everyday movements were becomming more difficult every day. My job, in a Hospital meant long hours of agonizing back pain.
    So I went looking for an exersice program and like you said most of them focussed mainly on abs and forgot all about the core.
    Then I found a program that helped me loose weight safely and naturaly.

  4. Andrew

    Has anyone done any research into the so called 5:2 diet and its effect on general fitness

  5. Jenny Pearce

    I like the tips, this is what work outs are for – to have a healthier body and not just develop abs or muscles to brag about.

  6. Simon Sobczak

    Excellent article. Core exercises are overlooked especially the older we get. I still get my Grandma to do exercises such as these and she has remained active into her 90′s. Not all down to core exercises but it sure helps!

  7. Dr.Valerie Girard

    Very disappointed in the medical community’s and your lack of investigation of one of the primary back care treatments: chiropractic. As a doctor of chiropractic, I have successfully treated a myriad of low back issues for over 30 years.
    Becoming a chiropractor typically requires 7 to 8 years of post–high school study: 3 to 4 years of undergraduate education, followed by a 4-year Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.) degree program. Chiropractors also must be licensed by their state.

    We assess through range of motion, muscle strength and x-rays when indicated as well as treat, offer nutritional advice, employ yoga and exercise therapy to enhance care. When needed, we refer.

    Employment of chiropractors is expected to increase by 28 percent from 2010 to 2020, faster than the average for all occupations. People across all age groups are increasingly becoming interested in chiropractic care because it consists of nonsurgical methods of treatment.

    Isn’t it time to look beyond the former prejudice encouraged by the AMA? Perhaps you will investigate the profession that more and more patients are turning to as an alternative to surgery for both spinal and extremity injuries.

    We can all work together for the health of our patients. Don’t you agree?

  8. Immunity Increase

    Great Article: I am a true believer that a little daily exercise can go a long way to great health. I also recommend eating healthy and taking daily vitamins and green supplements to increase your immune system and over all health.

  9. Kei

    This is good for me! I have bad posture leaning forward, it will help me standing stright, and helps my body lean!
    First exersise is like the Gangnam style :)

  10. Luke

    My father’s doctor told him that his debilitating back pain derives from continual dehydration. Is this something factual, like his posture and even diet are immaculate but that’s all his doctor will tell him. I’m just wondering if we should be seeking a second opinion as I’ve never heard of this before.

  11. zinniaaden@yahoo.com

    Good article in which many problems are covered. In my point of view physiotherapist are often able to assess swelling, loss of muscle length and flexibility, poor muscle tone and many other soft tissue problems by using our hands.