Your core consists of the muscles that stabilize the spine and hips, and includes all the muscles of the abdomen, back, glutes and upper legs. A strong core helps protect the entire midsection, and enhances both mobility and stability, which, in turn, improves movement efficiency and keeps the muscles functioning in coordination with one another. This, of course, helps improve balance, posture and strength.
A common misconception is that doing exercises while lying supine automatically increases core strength. While these exercises can help improve abdominal strength, the entire core must be challenged to help improve total-body function. A better approach is to use a variety of stances, such as single-leg, supine and prone, to incorporate a wide range of movements. Here are a few of the best exercises to challenge the entire core.
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While many consider the abdominal muscles to be the most important for increasing stabilization, strong glutes are essential as well. Many injuries and faulty movement patterns are a result of underactive glutes and overactive quads and hip flexors. To combat this, activate and fire those glutes before workouts to make sure they are turned on and ready to work.
Lie supine on the floor with knees bent and both feet flat on the floor. Keep the head relaxed and slowly push through the heels to raise the hips as high as possible. The knees, hips and shoulders should be in one straight line. This exercise activates the glutes and hamstrings, and stretches the hip flexors, which are often overactive and tight. Hold the top position for three seconds and slowly lower. Do eight to 10 reps per side. To progress this exercise, try one leg at a time or place the feet on the round side of a BOSU.
Medicine Ball Single-leg Reach
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Disguised as a leg workout, this move is great for the glutes, hips, back and abs. Grab a 5- to 10-pound medicine ball and stand on the right leg. Slowly reach forward while hinging at the hips (not the back). Simultaneously lever the back leg out behind the body. Reach as far as possible—work toward bringing the arms, torso, and left leg horizontal to the floor. As the core gets stronger, increase the weight of the medicine ball. Perform two to three sets of eight to 10 repetitions per leg.
BOSU Plank Variations
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Before attempting planks on the BOSU, make sure your client has impeccable plank form and can hold it for at least 30 seconds on the floor before attempting advanced variations. Planks are meant to strengthen the core, so if your client’s form wavers too much (back sinks, arches or bends), have him or her practice a little longer before advancing.
Start with the elbows on the round top of the BOSU. This creates an element of instability that must be controlled throughout the exercise. Perform a plank for 30 seconds. Begin adding small, alternating single-leg lifts, focusing on lifting the leg with the glutes and not shifting the hips at all. Next, try bringing one leg out about 45 degrees to the side, tapping the toe to the ground and returning to plank position. Perform five repetitions on each leg. Finally, try bringing the left knee out to the side, and tapping it to the BOSU just outside the left elbow. Repeat five times per leg. To regress these variations, perform them on the floor or on a flat bench before moving to the BOSU
Medicine Ball Single-leg Woodchop
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Grab a 5- to 10-pound medicine ball and stand on the right leg. Raise the medicine ball overhead, slightly over the left shoulder. Swing it down quickly, but with control, to the outside of the right leg. Try to keep the torso upright, with a constant slight bend in the right leg. Slowly bring it back up to starting position and repeat eight to 10 times. To regress this exercise, start on two legs and gradually progress to standing on one leg.
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Place the toes in the foot cradles and lie prone on the floor, ready to plank. Push up into a high plank on the hands, establishing perfect form. Keeping the legs straight, push the hips straight up into the air while simultaneously pulling the TRX toward the hands. Slowly lower back down to finish in plank position. Complete eight reps to start, gradually increasing to 15 reps as core strength improves. To regress this exercise, bend the knees to pull the TRX toward the hands.
Hanging Leg Lowers
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Exercises in which the legs are unsupported are a great way to work the deep abdominal muscles and the hip stabilizers. However, these exercises are not recommended for individuals with diagnosed lower-back pain.
If your client is a beginner, start this exercise using a Captain’s Chair. Once the client has developed a good strength base, progress to ab straps or hanging from the hands. Start with the knees bent, and lift them slowly as high possible, pulling the knees to the chest. Instead of focusing exclusively on the upward movement, think about the slow downward movement. Take about five seconds to slowly lower the legs back down to the starting position. This eccentrically works the deep abdominals, providing control and stabilization, while also preventing swinging. Repeat eight to 10 times. To progress this exercise, slightly twist the knees to the left and right to challenge the obliques. Additionally, try keeping the legs straight but only raise them as high as possible while maintaining straight knees. Again, focus on the slow lowering motion.