Almost all motions, from picking up a dropped pencil to swinging a baseball bat, start with the muscles in your core. In other words, your core — which is comprised of your abdominals, pelvic floor, obliques and lower back muscles — might be the most important muscle group in your body.
Harvard Medical School's Healthbeat calls it, "The sturdy central link in a chain connecting your upper and lower body." The best core workout routines utilize your body weight as resistance to develop strength, flexibility and balance.
Benefits of a Strong Core
A strong core helps with everyday tasks, from simply sitting at your desk and standing up straight to lifting boxes or heavy toddlers. Core strength also helps athletes with some of their most powerful motions, and it is a fundamental base for nearly every exercise.
For those suffering from back pain, developing core strength can provide much-needed relief; a study conducted by the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City found that individuals suffering from scoliosis had a 32 percent improvement after performing a yoga pose called the side plank for just 10 to 20 seconds a day for almost seven months.
For the best core routine, you'll want to do your core exercises in a cycle. Spend a few minutes on each exercise, with four to eight repetitions each. For exercises that require you to hold a position, such as the front and side plank, keep holding the position for about 30 seconds or longer.
You'll know you're done when you can no longer hold the position without shaking. Mix and match these exercises into different routines to build strength in different ways each day, and add variety to your workout with cardio exercises such as running, cycling or swimming.
The Front Plank
One of the best core workouts is the traditional front plank. HOW TO DO IT: Start by lying on your stomach with your forearms tucked underneath your body. Then, lift your hips and torso off the floor, supporting your body using your elbows, forearms and hands.
Keep your body aligned from your ankles to your neck, keeping your back and hips as straight as possible. Hold the position for one minute, or as long as you can; the front plank engages most of the muscles in your core, contracting your abdominals and strengthening your lower back and pelvis.
The Side Plank
The side plank, based off the yoga pose Vasisthasana, engages the muscles in either side of your torso, giving you a deep core workout on your left and right side.
HOW TO DO IT: Start by lying on your side with your feet together. Elevate your torso, placing one hand directly beneath your shoulders, with your arm forming a straight line that's perpendicular to the floor.
Keep your other arm straight up for balance and align your hips with your shoulders, forming a straight line from your feet to your head. Hold the pose for one minute, and then repeat on the other side.
If you have trouble completing a full cycle of these exercises, start with the simple front plank and build strength for several weeks until you can add the rest of the exercises.
The quadraplex helps develop your balance and coordination, challenging you to keep your alignment steady as you work nearly every muscle in your body.
HOW TO DO IT: Start on your hands and knees with your back parallel to the floor, and then slowly straighten your left arm and right leg until both are aligned with your back, pointing straight out.
Hold this pose for a few seconds, and then slowly alternate to your right arm and left leg, returning to the starting position each time. As you alternate arms and legs, focus on keeping your back and torso as still as you can; don't arch your back, or allow your hips and shoulders to sag in either directions.
- Harvard Medical School: The Real-World Benefits of Strengthening Your Core
- The Wall Street Journal: Study: Doing the Side Plank Reduced Spinal Curving in Scoliosis Patients
- American College of Sports Medicine: Best Back Exercises for Various Populations
- The Wall Street Journal: Why You Can Stop Doing Sit-Ups
- U.S. Army: Army Pocket Physical Training Guide