Everyone agrees that core work is important, but we often treat it like an afterthought. Consider that it often gets slotted at the end of a workout, when you’re already pretty spent. And yet, the core is extremely important, not just to everything you do in the gym, but to everything you do in life. Want to pick up your kid and plop her on your shoulders? Need to lift a 5 kilo bag of dog food from the car boot? Ever had to sit through a long, boring meeting but pretend to be all-in? Your core is in on the ruse.
But not all of us are giving it enough love. One reason we know that to be true is the number of people who experience low back pain. Millions of Americans live with low back pain. If it lasts less than four weeks, it’s called acute, four to 12 weeks is subacute, and over three months is considered chronic back pain, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And according to a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, more than one in ten people who sought medical attention for lower back pain were prescribed an opioid. And it’s not terribly surprising. Lower back pain is debilitating and people want relief.
But what would be even better than relief is not having the pain in the first place. The core actually plays a central role in providing the kind of alignment and brute strength that takes pressure off the lower back. This becomes especially true for people whose jobs involve lifting heavy things, and — paradoxically — people who sit at desks for a lot of the day, since they’re not always practicing particularly good posture.
Whatever your reason for improving your core is, we’ve got some moves that’ll get you there. Pick three or four moves to do in a workout. Do four sets of each move, 30 seconds per rep, resting between sets as needed. If form starts to falter, do an easier version of the move, decrease the amount of time per rep, or take longer during rests.
Superman Plank (works core, shoulders, hamstrings; challenges coordination and balance)
Start in a low plank, forearms on floor, elbows under shoulders, heels making a straight line with legs, back, and head. Keeping your gaze toward the ground, simultaneously reach forward with your left hand and kick your right leg up and back. Return to start and repeat on the other side. If this is too challenging, slow down the reps, and take longer rests.
High knees (works core, hip flexors; challenges endurance)
Start in a standing position. Begin running in place, focusing on bringing knees up to belly button height or higher, while swinging arms. If this is too challenging, lift one leg and replace it, then lift the other leg, focusing on bringing the knees high but not working speedily.
Russian twists (works side abdominal muscles; challenges focus)
Sit holding a light weight plate, kettlebell, or dumbbell. Sit on the floor, legs bent at a 45° angle, heels on the floor, toes up. Start by lifting heels about six inches off the floor and rotate the weight across your torso to the side of your body and back continuously. If that’s too hard, leave your feet on the floor. If that’s too easy, increase the weight.
Side planks with dip (works side abs; challenges shoulder stability)
Lie on left side, left forearm on floor, fingers pointed away from face, right hand pointed toward ceiling, feet stacked. Start by lifting into a side plank, then drop hip toward floor and immediately reverse to high plank. Repeat continuously. On the next set, start on the right side. If that’s too hard, start from the floor, rise to a high plank, and return to the floor, taking more time between movements. If that is too easy, place a dumbbell atop hip and hold it with top arm.
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Butterfly sit ups (works frontal abs and hip flexors; challenges stamina)
Lie on the floor, using an ab mat if available, pressing soles of shoes together, knees off the floor and pointed to the sides, to start. Put hands behind your head, engage core, keep back straight and shift up, arcing hands to touch your heels, then reverse to return to start and repeat continuously.
Leg raises (works frontal abs and hip flexors; challenges mobility)
Lie on your back, hands to the sides, feet together. Raise legs a few inches and press fingertips into the floor to start. Keeping legs locked out, feet flexed, low back touching the floor, draw legs straight up until bottom of feet are parallel with the ceiling and but comes off floor slightly. Return to start and repeat continuously.
Plank hip dips (works obliques; challenges balance)
Start in a low plank, forearms on floor, hands clasped, feet shoulder-width apart. Keeping shoulder blades flat, rotate hips side to side to tap the floor, allowing feet to follow. Repeat continuously.
Crunch (works frontal abs; challenges stamina)
Lie on floor, knees bent, feet on floor, hands lightly holding head behind ears, to start. Keeping a neutral neck, lift torso and shoulder blades off floor, then return to start. Repeat continuously.
Plank (works the entire torso; challenges stamina and focus)
Start in a low plank, forearms on floor, elbows under shoulders, heels making a straight line with legs, back, and head. Keeping gaze toward the ground, hold for the duration of the rep. If that’s too hard, try a high plank with hands on the floor, or drop to knees. If it’s too easy, do longer sets.
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