Your core is arguably the most important group of muscles in the human body. Sure, strong legs are an athletic essential, and who doesn’t want bigger, more muscular arms? But a weak core makes achieving either of these goals much less likely.
Your core is the link that connects your upper body to your lower body. If your core is weak, so is the rest of you. As the saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
A weak, unstable core means your lumbar spine will move when it’s not supposed to, e.g., flexing or hyperextending your lower back when squatting, deadlifting, or overhead pressing. This makes your workout less effective, reducing the weight you can lift or the number of reps you can perform. It also increases your risk of injury.
Many exercisers get around this problem by doing machine and seated exercises instead of free weight and standing movements. However, this is just a shortcut and won’t help when you step out of the gym into the real world, where you’ll have to rely on your core muscles to support your spine.
Neglect your core at your own risk!
In this article, we discuss some basic core anatomy and reveal five great exercises for increasing core stability.
Core Anatomy Basics
Many people think that core means the abs, and abs mean the core, like these words are interchangeable. However, the core is actually a group of muscles that encircle your waist like a corset or weightlifting belt.
The main core muscles are:
The transverse abdominis, or TVA for short, wraps horizontally around your abdomen. When it contacts, it squeezes inward to compress your abdominal contents. By doing this, the TVA increases intra-abdominal pressure, which helps support and stabilize your lumbar spine.
To engage your core, tense your stomach like you are anticipating a punch in the gut. Do NOT pull your abs in! Then, with your TVA contracted, inhale down into your abdomen. You should feel a pronounced increase in tension in your midsection, and you are now “braced.”
The obliques are basically your waist muscles. There are two sets of obliques – internal and external – and they work together to rotate and laterally flex your spine. During exercises like Pallof presses and side planks, they work isometrically or statically to prevent unwanted movement.
The rectus abdominis is the large flat muscle on the front of your abdomen. It’s divided by lines of ligamentous tissue into segments, which gives it that famous six-pack appearance. However, this is only visible when your body fat is low. The functions of the rectus abdominis are flexion and lateral flexion of the spine. Working with the TVA, rectus abdominis also compresses your abdominal contents to increase intra-abdominal pressure.
Multifidus is a series of broad, flat muscles in your lower back. It’s essentially the rear part of the corset that encircles your waist. Multifidus works mainly as a spine stabilizer but may also contribute to lumbar rotation.
Erector spinae is the collective name for the three muscles that run up either side of your spine. The lower parts of the erector spinae are involved in lateral flexion, extension, and rotation of the lumbar spine.
Some people also include muscles such as the glutes and lats in their list of core muscles, but that only serves to muddy the waters and make the core seem even more complex than it already is. For our purposes, the core is your midsection, and core stability means preventing unwanted movement of the lumbar spine.
5 Exercises to Increase Your Core Stability
While there is nothing inherently wrong with exercises like crunches, sit-ups, and leg raises, they won’t do much for your core stability. Most core stability exercises are isometric or static in nature, meaning they involve lots of muscle tension but no actual movement. Most are actually anti-movement exercises.
Here are five of the best core stability exercises:
When it comes to developing core stability, the bird dog is an excellent place to start. This simple yet effective exercise teaches you how to brace your core and move your limbs without undue load on the target muscles. Master the bird dog before moving on to more demanding core stability exercises.
How to do it:
- Kneel on all fours with your hands directly beneath your shoulders and your knees below your hips. Brace your core, lengthen your neck, and pull your shoulders down and back. Rotate your elbows backward to engage your upper body.
- Keeping your hips and shoulders steady, extend one leg backward and your opposite arm out to the front as far as possible.
- Return to the starting position and repeat. You can do all your reps on one side before changing or alternate rep-by-rep as preferred.
The plank is probably the world’s favorite core stability exercise, yet many people do it incorrectly. They rest on their toes and elbows for as long as they can, with little or no thought about the muscles they’re working. Make planks more effective by following these steps.
How to do it:
- Kneel down and place your forearms on the floor, so they’re parallel and roughly shoulder-width apart. Lightly clench your hands or leave them open as preferred. Brace your core.
- Walk your feet out and back until your body is straight. There should be an unwavering line from your feet to your shoulders.
- Maintaining core tension, hold this position (but never your breath) for the allotted time. Brace your core harder for a more intense workout.
- Lower your knees to the floor, relax, and then repeat.
While dead bugs look quite unlike planks and bird dogs, this oddly named movement combines elements from these two exercises. So-called because you look a bit like a dying fly, dead bugs teach you how to stabilize your core as you move your arms and legs. However, there is more tension on your muscles than with bird dogs or planks.
How to do it:
- Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet on the floor.
- Extend your arms up to the ceiling. Brace your abs and press your lower back into the floor. Lift your feet so your thighs are vertical and your knees are bent to 90 degrees. This is your starting position.
- Keeping your lower back flat, extend your left arm and right leg out and down to within a few inches of the floor.
- Return to the starting position, switch arms and legs and repeat.
The hollow hold is basically a face-up plank. Coming from the world of gymnastics, this challenging exercise will push your anterior core to its limit. So, if you have mastered bird dogs, planks, and dead bugs, this exercise should be right up your street. But, be warned, it’s tougher than it looks, so start slow and increase the duration gradually.
How to do it:
- Lie on your back with your legs tense and straight and feet resting on the floor. Extend your arms overhead. Brace your core and press your lower back into the floor.
- Lift your arms, shoulders, head, and legs a few inches off the ground, so your body forms a shallow, supine C.
- Hold this position, but not your breath, for the prescribed duration. Terminate your set if you feel your lower back lifting off the floor.
Pallof presses were invented by Bostonian physical therapist John Pallof. Originally called the belly press, the Pallof press quickly became very one of the most popular core stability exercises around. Unlike many other core stability exercises, which focus on anti-extension, Pallof presses are an anti-rotation exercise. As such, they put a lot of tension on your obliques.
How to do it:
- Attach a D handle to a chest-high pulley machine. Hold the handle in both hands in front of your chest and stand sideways to the machine.
- Brace your core and legs so you can resist rotation.
- Extend your arms in front of you like you are doing close grip bench presses. Do NOT allow the weight to pull you sideways.
- Bring the handle back to your chest and repeat for the prescribed number of reps.
- Rest a moment, turn around, and then do the same number of reps on the opposite side.
5 Exercises to Increase Your Core Stability – Closing Thoughts
Google things like “best abs exercises” or “core stability exercises,” and you’ll be inundated with hits. That’s because there are hundreds if not thousands, of different movements you can use to improve the strength of your midsection.
However, the truth is that you don‘t need to do loads of exotic movements to enhance core stability or build a strong, toned midsection; you can get incredible results by doing a small number of exercises consistently.
Doing lots of different exercises means you never really master any of them. Limiting your exercise choices will allow you to perfect your technique and get more from each and every repetition.
So, build your core stability workouts around the five exercises in this article – do less, but better.