(Article by Kari Fry with Rebecca Ireland)
We asked Personal Trainer and Study Active Assessor Rebecca Ireland to talk us through the importance and benefits of core stability exercises, how to start off as a beginner and how to build a core workout routine that targets the main components of the core.
IMPORTANT: The ideas in this article are the views of the interviewee and are intended purely for information only – they are not intended as bespoke exercise advice. Please do not start an exercise programme until you have completed a PAR-Q and if necessary, received medical clearance. Always warm up and cool down and never do any exercise that you are unsure of without the support of a qualified professional.
What are core stability exercises?
The core is the centre of our body that holds us upright by stabilising the spine and trunk, preventing falls, which could cause injury. It includes the pelvis, lower back (erector spinae), hips and the stomach (abdominals). The core allows us to move and bend the spine, it provides balance, helps to support our posture, and can produce specific movements that generate force through the body that is required for physical activities.
Core stability exercises are designed to improve the strength and endurance of the muscles that make up the core. The benefits of working the core muscles by performing regular core stability exercises is that it helps improve posture, balance, and co-ordination, reducing the risk of injury and help increase overall performance.
The core is not only used in different sports or exercise, but we use it when doing general day-to-day tasks like lifting heavy shopping bags, or activities that required standing for long periods of time, for example a job that requires you to be stood up and on your feet all day. Core stability exercises can help make these day-to-day tasks easier and can reduce fatigue by improving overall physical fitness.
Why would it be beneficial to include stability exercises in your workouts?
Incorporating stability exercises in your workouts has many benefits. As mentioned above, core stability exercises can help improve posture, balance, co-ordination, and reduces the risk of injury by helping increase your overall performance. Core stability exercises target the deep muscles within the abdominal wall, lower back, and hips which all help to improve posture and balance. In addition to this, they can help to increase your overall strength and endurance, enabling you to work out for longer periods of time.
Let’s look at each benefit in more detail. Having a strong core helps to improve posture, balance, and coordination. By strengthening the core, you are helping to strengthen the muscles that support the spine, resulting in having a better posture which reduces the risk of injury associated with poor posture, and lower back pain. Increasing your core stability will then help to improve balance and co-ordination reducing the risks of falls or other associated injuries.
Performing core stability exercises regularly can help improve muscular endurance meaning you can exercise for longer periods of time and prevent you from fatigue. Core stability exercises focus on strengthening the deep abdominal muscles which are essential for good posture and balance during physical activity and exercise.
Core stability exercises can help improve strength and power. Having a strong core is vital for lifting heavy objects safely and preventing injury. By having a strong core, it allows us to be able to perform exercises/activities like lifting weights more efficiently or running at a faster speed. It also helps to improve the ability to jump higher or further and allows us to throw things with a greater force.
Core stability exercises can also contribute to reducing stress levels by following deep breathing exercises and relaxing techniques. It also improves the stress that our bones and joints are put under when doing high impact exercises by absorbing the some of the impact when running or jumping for example. This can then further help with improving our mental health and physical performance.
In conclusion, by allowing time to incorporate core stability exercises into your workout it can help improve posture, balance, co-ordination, muscular endurance, overall strength, and power, and reduce stress levels both physically and mentally, meaning you are healthier and stronger. So don’t neglect core stability exercises in your workout routine!
Are there some basic core stability exercises that a beginner could start off with?
As a beginner it is important to strengthen your abdominal muscles that make up the core to help with improving posture, and lower back pain. Having lower back pain is often a sign of having a weak core and poor posture. With any exercise it is important that you know how to stabilise the spine, also known as the neutral position. So, exercises that support and strengthen the spine is a good place to start. Dynamic core exercises that compromise balance and coordination can come later once the easier static core stability exercises have been established.
The best exercise and probably most common core stability exercise is the plank. There are a few variations of the plank, that include the standard plank (performed on the knees or toes), side planks, single leg planks, and reverse planks. With the standard plank, you can start on your knees and then progress onto your toes. The idea when performing a plank is to keep the spine and neck in alignment and keep the body as straight as possible from head to toe (knees if modified) whilst supporting your body using your elbows and toes/knees. Abdominals should be engaged, and the body should maintain in a straight line. This is then held in position for as set amount of time.
Hollow holds are also great for beginners to challenge and work the core. Lying on your back with arms by your side and legs straight, lift your shoulders slightly off the floor by engaging your abdominal muscles, eyes to the ceiling and keeping the chin off the chest. Lift both legs off the ground, keeping the core engaged and back pressed against the floor. Hold for a set time. If the back arches off the floor legs need to be lifted higher to reduce intensity. The lower the legs the harder the exercise, but make sure that back remains pressed flat against the floor.
What exercises would you recommend for improving balance as well as stability?
The dead bug is great for challenging co-ordination and balance whilst strengthen those core muscles. Lying on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, lift opposite arm to leg, shoulders should be lifted and chin off the chest, abdominals and lower back muscles should be engaged. Hold for a set time, before returning to start position and switching to the other side.
The superman/superwoman also known as the bird dog is another great core stability exercise for challenging your balance and coordination. Positioned on all forms, knees bent, and toes to the floor, hands positioned under shoulders, with arms slightly bent. Keeping the neck and spine align, lift opposite arm to leg, extend the leg so it is straight, whilst extending the opposite arm straight. Engage the core and maintain a neutral spine. This can be held for a set amount of time or alternating sides for a set number of reps, but reps should be slow and controlled.
What might a core stability training workout routine look like? What are the best exercises to choose to target those core stability muscles?
Start by focusing on the basic core exercises such as planks, crunches, and bridges. As you progress, you can add more challenging exercises such as the side plank and the bird dogs.
Regularly performing these exercises will help you build strength, stability, and flexibility in your core muscles. You will also see results in your overall fitness level, posture, and balance.
Once you feel you have established the basics, you can add resistance such as medicine balls, small dumbbells/plates or even kettlebells to increase intensity.
To ensure the core routine is balanced you should pick exercises that target the main components of the core. So, it important that we pick exercises that work the following:
- the rectus abdominis (your six-pack abs) at the front
- the internal and external obliques on the sides
- the transversus abdomninis (the deepest abdominal muscle that wraps around your midsection horizontally)
- the erector spinae (the rope-like muscles at the back next to your spine)
- the multifidus (a very deep muscle that runs along your spine)
- the quadratus lumborum (another deep muscle in your lower back, above your hips)
- the diaphragm (this breathing muscle is the top, or the roof, of your core)
- the pelvic floor muscle (these make up the bottom, or floor, of your core)
Below are some core stability exercises that work the muscles within the core, and should be included as part of a weekly routine are:
- The plank activates the core working the transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis and internal obliques.
- Glute Bridges mainly work the gluteus maximus but also involves working the hamstrings when extending the hips and targets the transverse abdominis of the core.
- The Dead bug is a great all round core exercise working the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, transverse abdominis, multifidus, erector spinae, and the pelvic floor.
- Hollow holds require some support from muscles other than just the core muscles. Aside from the rectus abdominis, obliques, transverse abdominals, erector spinae, the hip flexors, serratus anterior, and quadriceps are also worked.
- Back raises work other muscles than just the core, but within the core the erector spinae and the quadratus lumborum are worked. Aside from the core muscles, the posterior chain is also worked which consists of the lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. Dependent on the variation of the back extension the obliques, middle and upper back muscles may also be used for stabilisation.
- Russian Twists primarily the obliques, rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis, and the erector spinae that make up the core are worked. The hip flexors, scapular muscles, and the latissimus dorsi are also worked to assist and help with stabilization.
There are many other core stability exercises, and different variations of the ones I have listed above. The core should be trained 2-3 times per week depending on experience and capability. Often a few exercises are worked at any one time and performed for a set number of reps or held for a set time. Anywhere from 1-3 sets of 12-20reps or held for 30-60secs dependent on the exercise, and experience, with a rest of 30-60sec in between sets.
Core exercises are often performed in a circuit format, so each exercise is performed in turn for a number or reps/or time, before resting and then repeating the exercise circuit again for a second or third set.
It is important not to over train your core, as it is already used in the majority of exercises that works other parts of the body. This is because the core should always be engaged when performing any resistance exercises, to help assist and stabilise your spine, or other areas within the body to carry out exercises safely and effectively. As mentioned above a few exercises may be selected to work on as part of your workout a couple of times per week, rather than working the core stability exercises all in one go, which is a great way to avoid to over training the core. Whichever way you decide to add core stability work into your fitness routine it is important that if you do spread out the core stability exercises over the week, to make sure that over the period of a week all muscles that make up the core are worked.
Conclusion - Core Stability Exercises
Thank you, Rebecca for such an insightful deep dive into core stability exercises. They are clearly of great benefit in everyday life, as well as in sporting activities, helping to improve posture, balance, co-ordination, and reducing the risk of injury. By working your training levels up from the basics to more challenging exercises, you can target those key muscles and improve your core.