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How to Strengthen Core Muscles

By Kim Nunley

Your core muscles, which include your abdominals, obliques, erector spinae, glutes and hip flexors, work together to keep your spine and pelvis properly aligned. This collection of muscles is working when you’re sitting upright, standing, bending over, walking, performing torso rotational movements and when you move to sit up. These muscles are also heavily worked when you're performing physical activity and athletic movements, like running, squatting down to defend an opponent and twisting as you hit a ball. To strengthen your core muscles, you can regularly incorporate core-specific exercises into your regimen. You can also improve core strength during your full-body, weight-training workouts by making minor adjustments to how you do the exercises.

Workout Schedule

Schedule two to three core-specific strengthening workouts into your weekly regimen, with one to two days off between sessions. The core-strengthening exercises can be compiled to create a stand-alone workout or can be tagged on to your weight-training or cardio workouts. If you’re going to add them to your already-established weight-training and cardio workouts, do them at the very end so that your core muscles aren’t fatigued when you’re lifting heavy weights or training aerobically. Always begin your workouts with a 10-minute dynamic warm-up. Walk or lightly jog for five minutes and then do low-intensity torso twists and bodyweight squats.

Floor Exercises for Beginners

When you’re starting out, begin with basic core-strengthening floor exercises like bird-dog and front plank. You’ll only need an exercise mat since your own body weight will serve as resistance. To perform bird-dog, which strengthens your glutes, abdominals and erector spinae, get in a quadruped position on the mat, with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Your back should be parallel to the floor. Engage your core and abdominal muscles as you simultaneously lift your left arm and right leg until they’re both fully extended and parallel to the floor. Lower them back to the mat and switch sides, lifting your right arm and left leg. Continue until you’ve completed 10 reps on each side to complete the set. To perform front planks, which strengthen your abdominals, obliques, hip flexors and glutes, lie face down on the mat with your elbows positioned directly under your shoulders. Engage your abdominals and core as you lift your body up off the mat so that you’re holding yourself up on your elbows and toes with your torso and thighs creating a straight line. Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds to complete one rep. Other floor exercises you can add to your workout include side planks, which target the obliques, and glute bridges and Supermans, which strengthen the glutes and erector spinae. Complete two sets of bird-dogs and hold two reps of front planks, glute bridges and Supermans.

More Advanced Exercises

More advanced exercisers and beginners who have practiced the beginner exercises and are ready to move on can perform more challenging core-strengthening exercises like lunges with rotations and medicine ball chops. To perform lunges with rotations, which work the glutes, abdominals, obliques, hip flexors and erector spinae of the core, stand and hold a medicine ball or dumbbell at your chest with both hands. Take a step forward with one foot. Bend your lead knee to lower your back knee toward the floor to lower into a lunge. Stop just short of your back knee touching the floor. From this position, twist your torso away from your lead foot. Rotate back to square and then rise up out of the lunge. Step with the opposite foot and twist in the opposite direction on the next rep. Continue until you’ve completed five reps on each leg. For medicine ball chops, which strengthen your abdominals, obliques and erector spinae, stand and hold a medicine ball down at the side of one hip. Swing the ball up and across your torso with straight arms until the ball finishes up over the opposite shoulder. Return to the starting position by swinging the ball downward and back across your body to the side of your hip. Complete 10 reps and then switch directions. Other standing core exercises to add to your workout include inverted flyers, which work your glutes, erector spinae and obliques, and kettlebell swings, which strengthen your glutes, erector spinae, obliques and abdominals. Do two sets of each exercise.

Challenging Your Core During Weight Training

You can strengthen your core during your already established weight-training workouts by tweaking your exercises to make them more challenging to your core muscles. For example, if you normally do back squats or front lunges, occasionally incorporate the overhead squat, which requires you to squat while holding a barbell overhead and recruits all your core muscles. Similarly, instead of doing lunges while holding dumbells at your sides, do them while holding a barbell overhead with extended arms. Instead of seated rows, opt for bent-over rows with a barbell, which are performed from a bent-over position and thus place greater demand on your glutes and erector spinae. Do deadlifts on one leg rather than two, placing greater demand on your glutes, erector spinae and obliques.

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