The 3 Best Core Exercises

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(Avoid Back Pain & Lose Weight With These Moves!)

Man helping woman do situps

The best core exercises aren't what you think

After almost two decades of working in fitness, personal training, bodybuilding, and rehabilitation, I’ve found one thing to constantly be true:

People with back pain almost always have weak core muscles.

That’s because core strength is essential to keeping your body balanced while giving your spine the support it needs. And having a few extra pounds on your frame doesn’t do much for back pain relief, either.

Once you slim and strengthen your core, you’ll find that daily life, other exercises, and “the little things” like playing with your kids – or grandkids – become easier and increasingly pain free. I would go so far to say that if you were to focus on strengthening only one part of your body, your core would be the most important.

What “Core” Really Means

As a Lose the Back Pain reader, you may already know that “core” doesn’t just refer to your abs.

Technically, your core stretches from your mid-back to your knees. It includes your latissimus dorsi, lower back, abs, obliques, hip flexors, inner and outer thighs, glutes and hamstrings.

Clearly, that means you need to do more than just crunches to strengthen your stabilizing muscles. (In fact, if you struggle with recurring back pain, please don’t do crunches. See the Core Exercise No-Nos section for more.)

Here are my top three most effective exercises that work your entire core while protecting your neck and back. Go through this cycle of exercises every other day and you’ll soon start feeling the difference.

The 3 Best Core Exercises

These exercises are drawn from the Pilates or yoga methods, which are both excellent core stabilizing methods and easily modified if you’re a beginner or already in pain. I suggest using a yoga mat for these exercises for comfort.

Warm Up with the Hundred (Pilates)

The Hundred is a classic Pilates movement for gently warming up the core for exercise–and so named for the hundred breaths you’ll take during the set. There is an easy and a more challenging option for this exercise, but both start with lying flat on your back with a neutral spine. Keep your arms at your sides and knees bent. Put a pillow or towel beneath your neck for comfort if you’d like.

Option 1: For beginners or those in pain.

  • Lift your knees to a “tabletop” position, keeping your abs and thighs flexed and tight.
  • “Peel” your neck and shoulders from the floor if you can. Keep your chin tucked into your chest. Lay your head on the floor if you feel any tension in your neck–you’ll still get the benefits!
  • Lift your arms so they are straight and parallel with the floor.
  • Pump your arms up and down for one hundred counts.

Option 2: For a little more burn.

  • Repeat steps from option one, but extend your legs to a 90-degree.
  • Need more burn? Go for a 45-degree angle with your legs while pumping your arms.

Watch a video demonstration of The Hundred core exercise:


 

Elbow Plank to Dolphin

This modified version of yoga’s Plank-to-Down-Dog cycle is gentler on the wrists and gives you an awesome core workout. Again, you have two options. The less intense first option will still give you excellent core benefits.

Option 1: Elbow Plank Only.

  • Lying flat on your stomach, bring your arms beneath your chest.
  • Clasp your hands and lift up on to your elbows, forearms, and toes into a modified push up position.
  • You can drop down to your knees if being on your toes is too difficult. As long as your core is tight, you’ll feel the benefits!
  • Hold for 30 seconds to begin, then increase time as you gain core strength. Move on to the full Elbow Plank to Dolphin exercise once you can perform the Elbow Plank comfortably for one minute.

Option 2: Elbow Plank to Dolphin.

  • Assume Elbow Plank from Option 1.
  • Push from your elbows and lift your hips toward the ceiling. Your forehead should be resting on the mat.
  • Bend your knees if the stretch is too much on your calves.
  • Hold here for 5 breaths, then return to elbow plank. Repeat the movement 8 to 10 times.

Watch a video demonstration of the Elbow Plank to Dolphin core exercise:

 

V-Up to Boat

The V-Up to Boat is a great yet challenging multi-step exercise for giving your core muscles a strong workout in as little as a minute or two.

  • Lay flat on your back with your legs straight and arms above your head.
  • Lift your straight arms and legs up at the same time from the ground. Bring your legs to 90- degrees and try to touch your toes. Do not strain your neck.
  • Return to flat–arms over your head, legs on the floor.
  • Repeat this exercise 8 to 10 times, or as many as you can.
  • After you’ve maxed out your repetitions, hold the “V” position. Your legs should be at 45 degrees, your arms straight and parallel to the ground, palms toward the ceiling. This is the Boat position. Hold this position for 15 seconds, or as long as you can.
  • If the full boat exercise is too difficult, try holding the back of your thighs rather than keeping your palms toward the ceiling.

Watch a video demonstration of the V-Up core exercise:

 

Bonus Core Exercise! The Balancing Table

This exercise works just about everything–abs, lats, glutes and hamstrings! Check out this picture for good posture.

  • Begin in a tabletop position (hands and knees on the floor, spine neutral).
  • Stretch your left arm and right leg out at the same time. Flex your foot so your toes are pointing to the floor. Keep your hips square to the ground, do not let your hips open up or rotate. Hold this position for five breaths.
  • Switch. Now stretch your right arm and left leg out.
  • Repeat so you perform the exercise on each side five times.

The Big Core Exercise No-No

Every exercise has its own time and place. But for the purpose of strengthening your core muscles, regaining muscular balance, reducing back pain and losing a few pounds around the middle without risking injury, watch out for the two worst core exercises: the crunch and the sit up.

In order to strengthen your core muscles, you need to work on the complete set of muscles including your glutes, hip flexors, abs, obliques, lower back, spinal muscles, hip adductors and, for women, the pelvic floor. But crunches and sit ups – especially when someone sits on your feet or your legs lay flat on the floor – actually target your hip flexors and quadriceps, not your core!

Worse, sit ups and crunches are notorious for placing unnecessary stress on your lower back and neck. This not only makes them counterproductive, they may hurt you.

Pilates: The Easiest, Gentlest Way to Strengthen Your Core

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If you enjoyed these exercises, then you’ll love a full Pilates work out. Pilates exercises are gentle on your back, neck and joints, yet powerful enough to develop great muscle tone and burn fat.

My mission isn’t only to help people get out of pain… but also to help them get healthy and fit, too. That’s why I’d like to offer you my favorite “getting started” Pilates DVD absolutely free. All you pay is shipping. That’s it.

It’s called Pilates Made Easy. In it you’ll learn how to safely develop longer, leaner muscles with Pilates’ gentle, no-impact exercises. And, of course, you get to do them in the privacy of your own home.

It’s a $29.00 value and it’s yours free if you ask for it today.

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Comments

  1. Beth says

    I am going to include these exercises into what I am already doing. I have serious back issues and haven’t been able to exercise and so my core got very weak. I am working daily to strengthen my core These will help. Thank you.

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