Lots of women would like to firm up their tummies. Working on
core muscles can help with that — and much more.
Many of us have wished for flatter stomachs, a goal that seems
more frustrating and elusive the older we get. You might have
been tempted by infomercials for exercise devices or breathless
magazine articles promising "flat abs" and tighter tummies "in
just days." Despite the hype, spot exercising abdominal muscles
won't get rid of fat. The only way to do that is to expend more
calories than you take in. Working these muscles has its place,
but the smart money these days is on strengthening a variety of
trunk muscles, collectively known as "the core."
Core conditioning improves posture, which contributes to a
trimmer appearance (poor posture can give even a woman with
well-toned abs a little "pot"). Moreover, developing core muscle
strength can boost the effectiveness of workouts and reduce the
risk of injuries that sideline our efforts to stay in shape.
Getting at the core
If you've ever had physical therapy to treat low back pain,
you're probably familiar with the concept of strengthening the
core — the muscles in the abdomen, lower back, and pelvis that
lie roughly between the rib cage and the hips. The strength and
coordination of these muscles is important not only for sports
and fitness routines but also for daily life — for example,
reaching up to a shelf, lifting a child, or sponging a spot off
The current drive behind core conditioning comes in part from
studies conducted in the 1990s showing that before they move an
arm or leg, people with healthy backs (in contrast with those
suffering from low back pain) automatically contract their core
muscles, especially the transverse abdominal muscles, which wrap
from the sides of the lower back around to the front. Experts
concluded that well-coordinated core muscle use stabilizes the
spine and helps create a firm base of support for virtually all
movement. The role of the core is also central to the Pilates
method, a series of exercises developed during World War I to
help rehabilitate soldiers returning from the war. Its founder,
Joseph Pilates, referred to the core as the "powerhouse."
These days, patients who are receiving physical therapy for
chronic low back pain or injury are told to contract their core
muscles before performing prescribed exercises. And Pilates
exercises are increasingly incorporated into health club
workouts, along with other approaches that engage the core, such
as fitness (stability) balls, yoga, and tai chi.
Exercises that strengthen abdominal and other core muscles should
be part of an overall fitness plan that includes regular
moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, 30
minutes per day, most days of the week. Guidelines also encourage
us to get 20 to 30 minutes of strength training two to three
times a week, and that might be a good time to fit in a few
exercises designed to work the core.
To be safe and effective, core muscle strengthening exercises
require proper alignment and progression from one type of
exercise to another — adjusted to your body and fitness level. So
you may want to ask a physical therapist or exercise professional
for help in planning a program for you. (If you haven't been
physically active or have back problems or some other medical
condition, consult a clinician before embarking on any fitness
You'll probably start by learning how to "draw in" — the first
step in performing all core exercises and a basic tool you can
use in almost any physical activity you perform (including
walking). Here's what you do: Sitting, standing, or lying on your
back, gently but firmly tighten the abdominal muscles, drawing
the navel in toward the small of the back. The tailbone should be
slightly tucked. (Some trainers prefer to call it "bracing" the
muscles, as if you were preparing to take a punch in the
stomach.) Practice holding this position for 10 seconds at a time
while breathing normally (that's the hard part!). Once you get
the hang of drawing in, you can start doing some core exercises,
progressing from those you do on a stable surface (the floor or a
mat) to those performed on an unstable surface, like a stability
Below are just a few exercises that can help strengthen core
muscles. If you decide to try any of them, go slowly, work at
your own pace, and don't keep doing anything that causes pain.
Concentrate on performing the exercises correctly, not on the
number of repetitions or how quickly you can do them. And don't
forget to breathe!
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
Place your fingertips at the back of your head. Tighten your
abdominal muscles; then curl your upper body forward, lifting
your shoulder blades off the floor. Hold for one or two seconds.
Slowly lower halfway to the floor; then repeat. Work up to 12 to
16 crunches. Note: Don't speed through the crunches!
Lie with your back pressed to the ground, your hands at your
sides, your knees bent, and your feet off the floor (ankles
crossed) so that your knees create a 90-degree angle. Tighten
your abdominal muscles, and raise your hips toward your rib cage,
curling your tailbone off the floor (see illustration). Hold for
a second or two; then slowly lower your hips to the starting
position. Work up to 12 to 16 repetitions. Note: Use
your hands at first to help stabilize yourself, but rely on them
less as you get stronger.
Lie stomach-down on a mat, resting on your forearms (like a
sphinx). Tighten your abdominal muscles, and press up so you're
balanced on your toes and elbows (see illustration). Don't let
your hips sag or stick up: your body should be in a straight line
from head to heels. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds; then lower and
repeat a few more times. Work up to holding the plank position
for 60 seconds.
Arm and leg raise
Lie on your stomach with your arms above your head. Tighten your
stomach muscles; then lift your right arm and left leg (see
illustration). Hold for five seconds. Lower, and rest a moment;
then repeat with the left arm and right leg. Work toward eight to
12 repetitions on each side. Note: Avoid arching your
back (keep your abdominal muscles engaged and your pelvis
tucked). When you're ready for more, try lifting the leg and arm
on the same side.
Lie flat on the floor on your back. Place your fingertips at the
back of your head. Tighten your abdominal muscles, bring your
knees up to a 45-degree angle, and lift your shoulder blades off
the ground. Turn your upper body to the left, bringing the right
elbow toward the left knee and extending your right leg (see
illustration). Switch sides, bringing the left elbow toward the
right knee. Continue this pedaling motion, slowly, for a total of
12 to 16 repetitions. Rest and repeat. Note: Avoid
pulling on the neck.
Because the ball is intrinsically unstable, core muscle activity
is greater when you perform certain exercises on it (a crunch,
for example) than when you perform the same exercises on a stable
surface. Stability balls come in various sizes (35 to 85
centimeters — 14 to 34 inches — in diameter). Check the label on
the box to find the correct size for your height. Start by
sitting upright on the ball with your feet flat on the floor. To
get a feel for remaining balanced, move your hips from side to
side, then in circles.
Arm and leg raise on the ball
Lie over the ball so that your hips are on top of it and your
legs are straight. Toes and fingers should comfortably reach the
floor. Tighten your stomach muscles, then lift your right arm and
left leg (see illustration). Hold for five seconds; rest a
moment; then repeat with the left arm and right leg. Do eight to
12 repetitions. When you're ready for more, try lifting the same
leg and arm.
Exercise ball crunch
Sit on the ball with your feet flat on the floor, hip-width
apart. Let the ball roll back slowly until your thighs and hips
are parallel to the floor (you may need to walk your feet out a
bit) and the ball is at your lower back. Place your fingertips at
the back of your head. Keeping your lower body still, contract
your abdominal muscles and curl your upper body forward, lifting
your shoulder blades off the ball (see illustration). Hold for a
second or two; then lower your upper back. Repeat a total of 12
to 16 times. Note: When you're ready for more, move your
feet closer together. Exhale as you contract; inhale as you
return to the starting position.