The core muscles not only provide stability to the lumbar spine and the backbone, but also play an important role in maintaining proper posture, preventing injuries and facilitating functional movements. The importance of conditioning these muscles is well acknowledged, and strengthening them requires a consistent core exercise schedule. In fact, experts recommend incorporating focused core exercises every alternate day (if not daily) into your workout routine. However, pushing yourself too much can also lead to injuries.
“Pushing too hard will cause the core muscles to get tired instead of becoming stronger,” says Hyderabad-based Wushu coach and personal fitness trainer, Ravi Teja. “So, realizing one’s physical ability along with consistency is the key. Being consistent helps in strengthening the core rather than pushing too much initially and then giving up.”
Planks are great for beginners. “Planks are the safest core exercise,” adds Teja. “Being an isometric exercise, the muscles are held in a certain posture for a certain period. If a beginner does exercises like crunches or bicycle crunches, they may end up doing it the wrong way and get injured.”
For those who have already built decent core strength and are looking to push further, variations are vital to avoid plateauing. “They should bring in variations in their workout routine. This means doing multiple core exercises. For instance, they can mix crunches, which condition the upper abdominal muscles, with reverse crunches that target the lower abdomen,” shares Teja.
Exercises for core muscles
Some essential exercises for strengthening the core muscles include:
Planks are one of the most popular core exercises that improve the stability of the muscles. However, paying attention to the form, duration and level of strain is crucial to avoid injuries or overexertion.
Bring the body to a tabletop position and rest it on the elbows that are kept in line with the shoulders. Engage the core muscles and maintain the position (with the eyes facing down and keeping the spine and lower body straight) for a specific duration (10 seconds to 2 minutes). Breathe normally while performing the exercise.
♦ Side planks
Side planks not only strengthen the core, but also the hips, glutes and side muscles.
Lie on your side with the torso supported on the elbow and the legs kept straight. Raise your hips, supporting the body on the elbows and feet. Tighten and engage the core muscles while maintaining the position (for 10 seconds to 2 minutes). Breathing should be normal while performing the exercise.
♦ Bird dog
Besides the core muscles, this exercise also targets the glutes and the hamstrings.
Place yourself in a tabletop position. Extend your left hand forward while pushing the right leg back. Hold the posture for a couple of seconds and return to the starting position. Repeat the same with the right hand and left leg.
♦ Glute bridge
This exercise targets the gluteal and core muscles. Additionally, this exercise is also beneficial for strengthening the hip extensors.
Lie down on your back, with the knees bent and feet planted flat a few inches away from the hips. Move the hips upward while exhaling, engaging the glutes. Hold the posture for a few seconds and then return to the original position. Perform repetitions according to your fitness level.
This exercise engages the core muscles of the lower back.
Lie down facing the floor, keeping the legs straight and the arms extended in front. Keeping the head in a neutral position, lift the arms and legs a few inches off the floor until a contraction is felt in the lower back. Hold the position for a couple of seconds, and then lower the arms and legs to the floor. Repeat the exercise for two to three sets (12 reps each).
Performing crunches regularly strengthens the abdominal core muscles. However, beginners can start with half crunches and progress to full crunches gradually.
Lie on your back, keeping your knees bent and hold your palms behind your head. Raise your shoulders from the ground while exhaling, compressing the belly. Hold the posture for a few seconds and return to the starting position. Your fitness level will dictate the number of sets and repetitions.
♦ Bicycle crunches
This is an advanced form of crunches that should only be attempted once the regular version is mastered. It helps in toning and reducing fat in the waist region.
Lie on your back and place your hands behind your head. Bend your knees and then lift your legs slightly. Move your feet in a circular motion (like riding a bicycle), bringing the right knee to the chest and touching it with the left elbow. Then alternate by touching the left knee with the right elbow. Perform the required number of repetitions.
♦ Flutter kicks
Along with strengthening the core, flutter kicks also improve endurance.
Lie on your back and lift your legs slightly off the ground. Raise the head, neck and shoulder a little as well. Start kicking like the backstroke kick in swimming. Repeat the same for a specific duration.