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Check out these newly released Special Health Reports from Harvard Medical School
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You can't buy good health but you can buy good health information. Check out these newly released Special Health Reports from Harvard Medical School:

Core Exercises: 6 workouts to tighten your abs, strengthen your back, and improve balance

Want to bring more power to athletic pursuits like running, swimming, golf, and tennis? Ward off or ease lower back pain? Build up your balance and stability so that you’re less likely to fall? Do you dream of running a marathon, or flashing washboard abs at the beach? Or are you simply hoping to make everyday acts like bending, turning, and reaching easier so that housework, fix-it projects, and gardening stay on your agenda? A strong, flexible core underpins all these goals.

Your core — which includes back, side, pelvic, and buttock muscles — 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 impairs how well your arms and legs function, draining power from many of the moves you make. For these reasons, core fitness should be part of every exercise program.

In this report, you’ll learn ways to slip these essential exercises into even the busiest schedule. The six core workouts in this report feature exercises that emphasize moves you make during sports and everyday life. We’ll show you how to set achievable goals and work smart, rather than wasting time you’d rather spend elsewhere. Twenty to 40 minutes a few times a week — or even just five minutes a day — is all the time you need. We’ve skipped standard crunches in favor of more challenging exercises designed to buff more than one muscle group at a time. And all of the exercises can be made easier or harder, depending on your current level of core fitness.

This Special Health Report was prepared by the editors of Harvard Health Publications in consultation with Faculty Editor Edward M. Phillips, M.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Harvard Medical School and Director and Founder, Institute of Lifestyle Medicine, as well as Master Trainers and Fitness Consultants Josie Gardiner and Joy Prouty. 49 pages. (2013)

  • The importance of your core
    • Major core muscles
    • Beyond muscles
    • Why strengthen your core?
  • Safety first
    • When to check with a doctor
    • 12 tips for exercising safely and effectively
  • Posture, alignment, and angles: Striking the right pose
    • Posture checks
    • Stay neutral
    • Get the angle
  • Getting started
    • How does core work fit into your exercise plans?
    • The right stuff: Choosing equipment for workouts
    • Using the workouts
  • Special Bonus Section: Setting goals and motivating yourself
  • Measuring gains
  • Fit it in
  • Improve your game
  • Standing core workout
  • Floor core workout
  • Medicine ball workout
  • Stability ball workout
  • Bosu workout
  • Mixed core workout
  • Resources
  • Glossary

Posture, alignment, and angles: Striking the right pose

Posture counts a lot when you’re exercising. Aligning your body properly is the key to good form, which nets you greater gains and fewer injuries. In fact, good posture helps anytime you’re moving. If one foot is always turned slightly inward, for example, it impedes power whether you’re walking, going upstairs, jogging, or playing sports. Worse, it paves the way for injuries to the ankle, knee, hip, and beyond, since the effects of this physical quirk can zigzag their way up your body.

Similarly, sitting up straight and comfortably aligned in a chair can make desk work feel less tiresome. Hours of computer and desk work tend to make your shoulders hunch and your head and neck jut forward uncomfortably.

Committing to core work will do much to improve your posture whether you’re sitting, standing, or moving. A balance of core exercises, such as those selected for our workouts, is best. If you only pour your efforts into strengthening abs, your back muscles will grow weaker by comparison. Instead of standing up straight, your body will curve forward. Likewise, posture is thrown out of kilter when muscles lose flexibility, becoming tighter and eventually shortening so that your range of motion is increasingly limited. Among other problems, this can cause back pain.

Our workouts are designed to build strength and flexibility in all your major core muscles. Doing any of our full workouts, or the four great moves in our short workouts, can help you avoid such problems.

Posture checks

Quick posture checks before and during exercise can also help you avoid injury and squeeze the most benefit from your workout. If possible, look in a mirror when exercising. Try to take a few moments each day to practice better posture, too.

When exercise instructions in our workouts ask you to stand up straight, that means

  • chin parallel to the floor
  • shoulders even (roll them up, back, and down to help achieve this)
  • arms at your sides, elbows relaxed and even
  • abdominal muscles pulled in
  • hips even
  • knees even and pointing straight ahead
  • feet pointing straight ahead
  • body weight evenly distributed on both feet.

Stay neutral

Whether you’re standing or seated, neutral posture requires you to keep your chin parallel to the floor; your shoulders, hips, and knees at even heights; and your knees and feet pointing straight ahead. A neutral spine takes into account the slight natural curves of the spine — it’s not flexed or arched to overemphasize the curve of the lower back. One way to find neutral is to tip your pelvis forward as far as is comfortable, then tip it backward as far as is comfortable. The spot approximately in the middle should be neutral. If you’re not used to standing or sitting up straight, it may take a while for this to feel natural.

A neutral wrist is firm and straight, not bent upward or downward. And neutral alignment means keeping your body in a straight line from head to toe except for the slight natural curves of the spine.

Get the angle

When angles appear in exercise instructions, try visualizing a 90-degree angle as an L or two adjacent sides of a square. To visualize a 30-degree angle, mentally slice the 90-degree angle into thirds, or picture the distance between the minute hand and hour hand of a clock at one o’clock.

The following reviews have been left for this report. Log in and leave a review of your own.

I have been doing water physical therapy with some of these exercises and there are others in this book that my DPT thought excellent for me and that he is going to incorporate in my water PT exercises. Also I have my Mom working with me at home and she can't even stand straight and she is now standing a wee bit taller and we are going to work at home further for her. Her legs are twisted and she falls alot (83 years of age)and she is starting to become mindful of her leg placement. This book I would recommend for anyone of any age!!!!
This was perfect for what I wanted it for - concise well described core workouts which I did not need special equipment for. The photos and descriptions are easy to follow. I've been doing the standing and floor workouts for several weeks now and feel they are effective. Honestly, I didn't read much else of the booklet. Like others have said, I don't feel like I need a lot of why / how / when to workout. I did appreciate the diagram of core muscles.
I find the exercise descriptions with photos clear and succinct and the workouts overall seem to me to be a good balance. The book is very helpful for me. The background information on the importance of exercise is good as far as I have read. Of course I don't need to read any more than what interests me.
Disappointed tht Harvard would send out something so superficial . Incomplete information on various exercises. Way to much space wasted on why exercise is important--if I did not beleive so I would not have purchased book.
Did not find this to be helpful. The descriptions of the exercises were incomplete.
I like the report. However, I applied twice for the discount for returning customers after ordering. No response in several weeks!
Complete waste of money.
I am finding this book to be very helpful. I have two herniated discs that are treated with cortizone when the nerves flair up. Along with this treatment, physical therapy sessions are also required. Your routine is similar to PT in building the "core". I feel by following your routine on a daily basis, I will be able to stave off future back pain episodes. At least, that is what I'm hoping for...and so far, so good.
Very helpful, I have noticed that my core is more stable and my balance is better. However, the directions are a little wordy.
My husband and I are older people (75 and 66) who work very hard at fitness and good health every day. We climb 19 flights of stairs, lift weights, walk fast 4 miles, and still are a little soft around the middle. This book is incredible. It looks easy, but after the first day of trying standing core and floor core exercises, we were so sore the next morning we could hardly walk up the stairs. Our clothes fit better; just feeling around my own waist is firmer and tight. Thank you, Harvard!
Sorry, felt this to be pretty much a waste of money. There were quite a few pages describing why exercise is important (most of which most people who read HPH materials will know about anyway) and then, rapidly described,instructions for exercises which are are shown in not very clear, and unattractive photographs, without sufficient detail to be confident that one is doing them properly. Worryingly, there is perfunctory information about requisite warm-ups and cooling down after exercise. At the end of the booklet there are references and links to free videos on the web from the American Council on Exercise, and I think these are genuinely valuable - maybe better to go straight to their website for their much clearer instructions and suggested exercises and skip buying this wordy, worthy but pretty unhelpful publication.
Terrific book. The background information is well worth reading, and the exercises are thorough. They look easy, but getting through the exercises is a real challenge. But each one has an easier option and a more challenging option, so you can do the routine for years to come, making it more difficult as you go.
The Core Exercises report explanatory and detailed, thus making it useful and informative. In addition the report is an excellent starting point with easy to follow plans.
A) Strong scientific knoweledge B) Very usefull and effective for design every-day workout programme
Good background and explanations. Not enough diagrams showing the movements for each exercise.
Excellent resource for both the beginner and already very active people. Very clear illustrations and instructions for each exercise as well as tips for making it easier or harder. I also like the variety of exercises, those without equipment, and those with the Bose, fitness ball, etc. A good purchase
Very good elementary exercises. Improvements already in just a few days!
I found this book to be very detailed in descriptions of core muscle anatomy and many variations of exercises both with and without weights. I am particularly interested in the exercises to support my golf swing, and these are quite good. Interesting factoid: Ben Crane, a PGA golfer competing in the British Open, was performing planks while waiting to tee off on a hole during the tournament, much to the amazement of the British commentators. (:>)
Clearly written and with plenty of background for those that want it. I would have liked there to have been more photographs so that I could see each stage of each exercise - or even access to a video.
The Core Exercises book has helped me jump-start (again!) my workout routine. Even my husband, who is physically fit and self-disciplined, has found some of the exercises worth adding to his routine.
Excellent written and visual descriptions of exercises from the beginner to those who are more fit and accomplished. The tips on what to concentrate on and what to avoid help
I am still working my way through this book but have been very impressed so far. I am having to adapt some of the exercises, as I lost most of my right leg to cancer several years ago, but so far, this has been do-able.
detailed, comprehensive, includes instructions for novices as well as experienced athletes, on appropriate workouts and challenges.

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