Strengthening the core

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 19, 2005

If you asked 10 fitness buffs at the local gym for advice on the best exercise to improve &uot;core&uot; muscle strength and stability you would probably get 10 different exercises.

This article offers insight on several easy but effective exercises to improve posture, stability, and core strength.

The program is designed for individuals new to exercise or those who want to enhance their current regimen and improve functional skill training. As with any physical fitness program, always consult with a physician prior to starting.

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What are the core muscles?

Core muscles (abdominals, hips, thighs, and back) have long been called the power house, the power zone, and several other names. As the term &uot;core&uot; implies, it is the central portion of the body or torso where stabilization of the abdominals, erector spinae, and gluteal muscles are critical for optimal performance during various dynamic and non-dynamic movement.

This special group of muscles have the responsibility of maintaining balance, improving coordination and stability during movement. They stabilize the spine during dynamic movement such as jumping, lifting, running, and pulling.

What are the benefits of improving core muscle strength and stability?

Core muscles play a significant role during motion by supporting posture and coordinating muscle action. Strong core muscles are critical in that they are responsible for absorbing shock and transmitting force.

Not only are they important for athletes but equally important to the average person in everyday activities such as picking up a child, moving furniture, or taking out the garbage. Incorporating specific functional training to improve core strength is necessary for total muscle development. By doing so we decrease the likelihood of serious injury or the onset of joint breakdown. The safest and most effective program should be a progressive process starting with four or five simple movements that challenge core muscles and stability.

As you improve more challenging movements can be added. Adaptation normally occurs within three to six weeks of starting a program.

Problems associated with weak core muscles

Weak core muscles have the potential to lead to lower back pain, joint breakdown, abdominal strains, poor posture alignment, adduction strains, and the inability to balance and withstand external forces. It’s not unusual for individuals to have chronic back pain as a result of weak core muscles-primarily the abdominals. Increasing the strength of the core area has been shown to greatly reduce or eliminate many of the problems associated with chronic back pain and instability.

Getting Started

Starting a &uot;Functional Core Training Program&uot; is simple and requires less than 15 minutes per workout. There’s no equipment requirement other than an exercise mat and towel.

The following core exercises are designed to increase core strength and reduce the risk of injury to lower extremities.

Supine Knee Flex

Lie on the back with legs straight. Flex left knee and hip, bringing thigh toward chest.

Place both hands behind thigh and continue to pull thigh toward chest. Hold for 30 seconds repeat other side.


As adults mature and advance into older age, the constant pull of gravity on upright posture begins to take toll. Balance becomes more difficult and the chance of falling and sustaining a sever injury increases. Maintaining an adequate sense of balance is crucial for preventing trips and falls. Balance training mimics other forms of physical activity which should be progressively modified as adaptation occurs. Stand with feet shoulder width apart holding hands parallel to the floor with palms up while contracting the abdominals. Lift one leg off the floor and hold for 30-45 seconds, then repeat other side.

Prone Back Extension

Lie prone with the forehead on a mat and the neck in neutral alignment. Hips are pressed into floor with gluteals contracted.

Elbows are flexed and pressed into the sides with palms on floor. Begin by moving slowly up onto the elbows, hold for five seconds and slowly return to start position. Repeat 5-7 repetitions.

The Mermaid

This exercise is great for toning the waistline and strengthening the arms, shoulders, and hips. Sit with your right leg extended to the side and your left foot tucked in toward your groin. Extend your right arm out to the side at shoulder level and place your left hand on the floor beside your buttocks.

Inhale as you use the abdominals to lift your right hip from the floor toward the ceiling sweeping your right arm up toward the ceiling and pointing your right foot.

The Super Man

When designing your program the back muscles cannot be ignored. The super man is an excellent addition to your fitness program when selecting exercises to strengthen the lower back. Lie face down on the ground/floor with the arms and legs extended. Keeping your legs and arms straight, lift both arms and legs off the ground at the same time, hold for a count of 6 seconds and relax.

Repeat for a count of 10 repetitions.

The Plank

Maintain stability through your core in the prone position with your weight on your elbows and toes. Imagine your body as a coffee table as you try and keep your body in a straight line and maintain balance. Your focus during this exercise is to tighten the abdominals by pulling the belly button toward the spine while breathing normal. Hold for 30 seconds. To increase the challenge, add 10 seconds or alternate lifting one foot off the floor for five seconds while maintaining a stable position.

Zeke Brown, MHR, CSCS is owner of ZB Fitness, a private personal training studio in Suffolk. For questions or comments he can be reached at or, or by phone at 639-3891.