Does the following sound familiar? On Monday, you focus on strengthening your biceps, Even though you divide your muscle groups by the day of the week, you always end your workouts the same way—crunching your way through a dreaded (and frightfully boring) abdominal workout. Are all of these crunches really strengthening your core muscles? And what’s the difference between abdominal muscles and core muscles anyway? My Fort Collins personal training clients are asking me these questions all the time.
First, it’s important to note that the terms “ab muscles” and “core muscles” don’t necessarily describe the same anatomical areas. Rather, core muscles are the muscles in the upper/lower torso (which includes the abdominals) as well as the muscles of the hip, spine, and lower back. Some of these muscles aren’t even visible from the surface. But just because they are not seen doesn’t mean they are not important. In fact, every time we sit up, stand, pick something up or exercise we are using our core muscles. They also protect our inner organs and contribute to our overall athletic ability. Core muscles hold the trunk stable while our limbs are free to catch footballs, sprint to the finish line and shoot accurate free throws.
You may say to yourself, “But I’m not an athlete!” Or, “Why is my core strength important?” Simply put, a stronger core makes every exercise easier, takes the stress off of other muscles you use to accommodate for a weak core (which in turn can wreck your body alignment and cause other problems) and keeps your upper back muscles in alignment. A strong core reduces the likelihood of injury, keeps you pounding the pavement, lifting at the gym, and swimming that 10th lap, whatever the case may be.
The 5 best core exercises include elbows and toes planks, side planks, medicine ball chops, stability ball crunches, and jack knives. Core strength exercises should be incorporated throughout your workout and use functional aids (like stability balls and wobble boards) to be most effective over the long haul.
Here are the top five core movements:
1) Elbows and toes planks: The plank exercise builds endurance and strengthens the abs, back, and stabilizing muscles all over the body. Simply lie down on a comfortable mat and position yourself on your forearms as you stretch out your body on the mat and rest on your toes. Lift your torso up off the mat and try to create a level, tabletop from head to toe. Your weight should rest on your forearms and toes only. Do not let your belly sag inwards. Hold the position for 20 to 60 seconds and do at least 3 sets.
2) Side planks: This is simply a variation of the elbows and toes plank. Lie down on your side on a comfortable mat. Rest your weight on one forearm as you stack outstretched feet on top of one another and lift your hips skyward. To increase difficulty, extend unweighted arm. Hold 20- 60 seconds. Repeat at least 3 times.
3) Medicine ball chops: Choose a 5-12 pound medicine ball and position your feet shoulder width apart. Hold the medicine ball with both hands and raise arms overhead to your right. This is the starting position. Rotate trunk as you bring medicine ball down in a “chopping wood” motion towards your left foot. Remember that your feet continue to face forward. Repeat this motion 10-15 times and then switch to the other side. Do at least 3 sets.
4) Stability ball crunches: Use stability balls to improve balance, flexibility, and torso strength. To perform crunches on a stability ball, position the ball comfortably under your lower back. Cross arms overhead or fold them across your chest. Make sure you do not pull your head forward when you crunch up. Breathe out as you focus on “pushing” your rib cage down towards your toes as you pull your torso off of the ball—this is the crunch. Try to hold this crunch for two beats as you keep the ball as still as possible. Slowly lower down as you inhale. Perform 1-3 sets of 15-20 reps each.
5) Jack knives: These are challenging core exercises because they require strength and balance. Start on your back with arms reaching overhead. Exhale as you keep knees and arms straight and raise body into a V-position. Balance here and hold for one beat before lowering to start position. Repeat 8-10 times for at least 3 sets