Our core may well be the most important part of our bodies and the most influential facilitator of movement. The core is much more than just your washboard ab muscles and is made up of every muscle in your torso. This includes not just the superficial muscles, but the deep internal muscles supporting the torso and the spine. The core muscles are (or should be) involved in virtually every movement of the human body, providing support and stability as we perform complex activities including exercise and activities of daily living.
Most of us are familiar with traditional core exercises like crunches, sit-ups, and back extensions. What many may not know, however, is that these types of exercises use only certain superficial core muscles as the “prime mover” and work only a small part of the core. They may initially be somewhat effective at increasing strength, but if this is all you’re doing to work your core, you will plateau. Not only will your results suffer, but you can actually increase your risk of injury by neglecting the deep, internal muscles that stabilize and support the joints and transfer forces safely through the body. To learn how to assess your core stability, click here.
In order to get a balanced workout, achieve optimal results, and minimize the risk of injury, we need to incorporate exercises that work the entire core and train for not just strength, but for activation, stability, and control. Activation refers to the ability to fire up the right muscles at the right time, i.e., the mind-muscle connection. Stability and control are the muscles’ ability to prevent distorted, and potentially harmful, movements in the joints and to execute movement patterns with precision and accuracy.
Incorporating “non-traditional” core exercises into your workouts will help you reach a level a strength and stability that will push your results to the next level while keeping your body safe.
Here my top 10 non-traditional core exercises:
This exercise is great for beginners, but don’t let that fool you. When done properly, it’s much harder than it looks!
Begin in a tabletop position on the floor or a mat with your hands directly beneath your shoulders and your knees directly beneath your hips. Take a sideways glance at the mirror to make sure your body is in alignment. Find a neutral spine, meaning no sagging or arching in the lower back. To do this, draw the belly button and the side body in towards the spine by squeezing the core muscles. A common mistake I see here is people sucking in their stomach rather than drawing it in and therefore not getting the right engagement and not getting the most out of the exercise. If you’re still looking in the mirror, bring your neck back into alignment and draw the shoulder blades back and down.
Next, straighten one leg completely behind you and, keeping the engagement in your core, lift your straight leg so it is as close to parallel to the floor as you can get it. Level out your hips by drawing the hip of the lifted leg down towards the floor. You should really feel the engagement now. Watch out for losing that engagement here. It is common to see peoples’ lower backs begin to sag, which defeats the purpose of the exercise and puts you at risk for a lower back injury. If you’re noticing some sagging or loss of engagement, think about drawing the lower back up slightly towards the ceiling. You can also lower your leg slightly.
If you are comfortable here, you can also raise the opposite arm so that it is straight out in front of you and parallel to the floor.
Hold the position for 10-20 seconds on each side. Repeat 3-5 times.
Birddog with a Twist
If you’ve mastered birddog and need a little more of a challenge, try this variation!
Begin in birddog with opposite leg and arm raised by following the instructions above. When you’re stable, and with maintaining the same engagement in the core, bring your arm and leg out to the side so they are at more-or-less a 90-degree angle from your body. Hold for 10-20 seconds on each side. Repeat 3-5 times.
*If you just LOVE birddog, but still need more of a challenge, try adding ankle and/or wrist weights.
Plank and Plank Variations
Planks are not always the most exciting exercise, but they really are a great one for improving core strength and stability. If hanging out in a regular plank for 60+ seconds isn’t exactly your thing, try a variation to spice it up. For example, you can raise one leg or one leg and the opposite arm, or twist the hips get some oblique action. You can place your feet or hands (or both!) on unstable surfaces like a stability ball, Bosu, TRX, or rings to increase the challenge. You can even add in some cardio by doing shoulder taps, plank jacks, or alternating leg lifts in an explosive fashion.
The important thing to remember here is to find the same engagement in the core that you have in birddog. Draw the belly button and side body in towards the midline by activating the inner muscles. You can even find a slight tuck in the pelvis, drawing the top of the pelvis towards the bottom of the rib cage. Be conscientious though that any tuck is being performed by the core muscles and is keeping length through the spine so the discs and vertebrae do not become compressed.
While you may be able to hold the plank or variation for only a few seconds at first, work up to 60-90 seconds. Repeat 3 times.
This is another underrated exercise that most people are familiar with but don’t do enough. And I am just as guilty because side plank is definitely not the most comfortable position. It is effective though and targets muscles on the side body that plank and birddog don’t hit quite as much.
Like with plank, there are several variations to spice up the exercise. For example, you can raise the top leg so it’s parallel to the floor. Taking it a bit further you can reach for the foot or the toes with your top hand and straighten your leg so it is more perpendicular to the floor. You can also bring the top leg forward and/or backward to emphasize different muscles.
Also, like with plank, it’s important to use proper form and maintain proper engagement during the entire exercise. Your hips should be lifted and not sagging towards the floor. They should also be inline with the rest of your body and not protruding back behind you or out in front of you. Your posture should be the same as if you were standing normally.
Hold the exercise for 20-60 seconds on each side. Repeat 3 times.
The Pallof Press is an anti-rotational exercise that activates the inner core muscles and trains the core to stabilize against directional pressure. It also promotes postural alignment and teaches you how to brace, an important preparation for any exercise.
To begin, tie or attach a band around a pole at chest height. Face sideways to the pole, hold the handles in both hands in front of the midline of the chest, and step away from the pole so that there is resistance on the band. You should already feel your core muscles activate in an effort to prevent your torso from rotating towards the attachment. Take an athletic stance. Keeping shoulders and hips square to the front, press your hands straight out away from your chest. Pause. Return to start and repeat. This exercise can also be done with cables.
Perform 10-15 reps on each side. Repeat 2 times.
The full expression of this exercise is definitely advanced. Start seated with your legs straight out in front of you. Place the palms of your hands firmly into the ground beside your hips. Draw in your abdominal muscles, creating a hollow body or c-shape. Continuing to engage your core, lift your bottom and both straight legs off the floor. Be sure to keep your shoulders drawn down away from your ears and your hips directly below your shoulders. Keep your neck straight and long to avoid straining it by gazing out towards your feet.
Hold for 20 seconds. Repeat 3-5 times.
Not able to take the full expression just yet? That’s ok! Try these progressions and work your way up:
- Keeping your feet on the ground, lift only your hips
- Keeping your hips on the ground, alternate holding up each leg individually
- Keeping your hips on the ground, lift both legs off the ground
- Lift hips and one leg at a time off the ground
- Bend your knees coming into a “tuck” position and lift hips and feet off the ground
- From a lifted tuck position, alternate extending one leg at a time
Push-ups are a great way to train both your core and upper body. You get the same stabilizing benefits as from doing a plank but with the added challenge of maintaining stability through dynamic movement, which is important for everyday life (we don’t spend our entire day standing still!). You’ll want to maintain proper plank position throughout the exercise, being careful not to allow your hips to sag towards the floor or your shoulders to buckle up.
Perform 12-15+ reps. Repeat 3 times.
The Farmer’s Walk is an excellent training exercise that hits the core, back, shoulders, and even the legs. It enhances not just stability, but also power since maintaining a strong and tight core through dynamic movements provides a powerful base for exercises like running, sprinting, jumping, throwing, and even squatting.
To perform, hold two dumbbells or kettlebells of equal weight, one in each hand by your sides. Pack your shoulders, meaning draw the shoulders back and down and slightly externally rotate the arms to lock the joints into place. Straighten your spine and draw the abdominal muscles in – think plank position, but standing. Maintaining this posture, begin walking by taking small steps forward. Be sure to keep your ribs held in so they don’t flare out and keep your neck long and straight so it is not strained down or craned up.
Walk 50-150 feet. Repeat 3 times.
There are lots of variations (including the waiter’s walk below) that change the positioning of the weight.
Your posture here is essentially the same as the Farmer’s Walk above. The only difference is that you will hold the weight in one hand at a time and hold your arm up at a 90-degree angle with your hand above your shoulder, just like a waiter carrying a tray.
Hanging Leg Raise
This is a great dynamic exercise to train the core. Be aware, it is an advanced exercise. To perform, grip a pull-up bar or handles and allow your body to hang vertically. Pack your shoulders to stabilize and protect the joints. Be careful not to allow your shoulders to creep up towards your ears or roll forwards. Draw in your abdominal muscles, thinking about a vertical plank position, i.e. avoid arching the lower back. Using the core and not momentum and keeping your legs straight, lift both legs up as high as you can. Slowly lower back down and repeat.
Do 10-12 reps. Repeat 3 times.
If you’re not at that level yet, try these progressions to work your way there:
- Leg raise lying with your back flat on the floor
- Rest your forearms on the forearm rests of leg raise equipment and rest your back against the back pad
- Rest your forearms on the forearm rests of leg raise equipment, but keep your back off of the back pad
- Do knee tucks instead of straight-leg raises
Deadlift and/or Kettlebell Swing
Last, but not least, and definitely one of my favorites is the deadlift or kettlebell swing, which is basically a variation of the deadlift. Like a push-up, deadlifts train the core to stabilize throughout other movement patterns. A huge mistake a lot of people make when doing deadlifts or kettlebell swings is not engaging and using the core properly. This ends up putting a lot of strain on the lower back and can lead to injuries.
To do a deadlift, begin in an athletic stance with a heavy kettlebell between your feet. Brace the core and draw in the abdominal muscles. Then hinge at the hips so that you can grip the kettlebell with both hands, keeping your arms straight. Now, squeeze the core to initiate the lift, then complete the lift by engaging the hamstrings and glutes to thrust the hips forward. Lower back down, in the same manner, keeping the same engagement. You’ll use the same motion for a kettlebell swing, but with more oomph so that your inner thighs actually push your arms up so they are parallel to the floor or higher at the top of the lift.
Do 8-12 reps. Repeat 3 times.