What do I need to know before I start core exercises?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I’d like to start doing some core exercises. What do I need to know before I start?

DEAR READER:

Core exercises should be a part of everyone’s exercise routine. Committing to core work will improve your posture whether you’re sitting, standing or moving. Try to do a variety of exercises that target all the core muscles.

Many people equate the core with their abdominal muscles, but your core is much more than that. It also includes muscles in your back, sides, pelvis and buttocks. These muscles are essential for movement. They help your body with everything from bending, twisting, lifting and carrying, to enhancing your balance and stability. Weak, tight or unbalanced core muscles can undermine the ease and power of everyday motions.

When performing core exercises, it’s important to have good form. Good form involves proper posture and alignment. When instructions for core exercises ask you to stand up straight, that means:

  • chin parallel to the floor;
  • shoulders even (roll them up, back and down to help achieve this);
  • arms at your sides, elbows relaxed and even;
  • abdominal muscles pulled in;
  • hips even;
  • knees even and pointing straight ahead;
  • feet pointing straight ahead;
  • body weight evenly distributed on both feet.

Quick posture checks before and during exercise can help you avoid injury and squeeze the most benefit from your workout. If possible, look in a mirror when exercising.

Another instruction you’re likely to encounter is to “stay neutral.” Whether you’re standing or seated, neutral posture means keeping your chin parallel to the floor; your shoulders, hips and knees at even heights; and your knees and feet pointing straight ahead. A neutral spine means the back is straight except for the slight natural curves of the spine. It is not flexed or arched. And neutral alignment means keeping your body in a straight line from head to toe (again, except for the spine’s natural curves).

To get you started, I’ve put descriptions and illustrations of a few core exercises here:

1. Standing Knee Lift

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reps: 10 per leg
Sets: 1–3
Intensity: Light to moderate
Tempo: 2–2
Rest: 30–90 seconds between sets

Starting position: Stand up straight with your feet together. Put your hands out to the sides, elbows slightly bent.

Movement: Lift your right knee toward the ceiling as high as is comfortable, then lower the foot to the floor. Finish all reps, then repeat with the left leg.

Tips and techniques:

-Keep your chest lifted and your shoulders down and back.
-Tighten your abdominal muscles throughout.
-Squeeze the buttock of your standing leg for stability.

Too easy? Lift your right knee toward the ceiling. Lower the knee without touching the floor, then repeat. Finish all reps, then repeat with the left leg.

Too hard? Hold on to the back of a chair for support.

2. Side squat with knee lift

Side squat with knee lift 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reps: 10 per leg
Sets: 1–3
Intensity: Moderate
Tempo: 2–2
Rest: 30–90 seconds between sets

Starting position: Stand up straight with your feet together and hands by your sides.

Movement: Step to the right, hinge forward at your hips and bend your knees to lower your buttocks into a squat as if sitting down. As you do so, clasp your hands loosely in front of your chest. Exhale as you lift up from the squat and bring your right foot up and your hands to your sides. Return to the squat and repeat until you finish all reps. Repeat with your left leg.

Tips and techniques:

-Keep your spine neutral and your shoulders down and back.
-Keep your knees aligned over your ankles and pointing forward as you squat.
-Your knees should extend no farther than the arch of the foot.

Too hard? Skip the knee lift.

Too easy? Hold each squat for four counts before rising up from the squat for the knee lift.

3.  Side squat with knee lift and rotation

Side squat with knee lift and rotation 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reps: 10 per leg
Sets: 1–3
Intensity: Moderate to high
Tempo: 2–2
Rest: 30–60 seconds between sets

Starting position: Stand up straight with your feet together and your hands at your sides.

Movement: Step out to the right, hinge forward at your hips, and bend your knees to lower your buttocks into a squat as if sitting down in a chair. Simultaneously, clasp your hands loosely in front of your chest. Exhaling as you lift up, bring your right foot toward your left knee as you rotate your upper body to the right. Return to the squat. This is one rep. Finish all reps, then repeat the sequence on the opposite side.

Tips and techniques:

-Keep your spine neutral and your shoulders down and back.
-Keep your knees aligned over your ankles and pointing forward as you squat.
-Your knees should extend no farther than the arch of the foot.

Too hard? Make the squat smaller.

Too easy? Hold the squat for four counts.

 

Core exercises not only protect you from injury and improve your posture, they also are used to treat various problems with the bones and muscles. For example, they often are used as part of an exercise program to treat chronic low back pain. Some scientific trials have found core exercises effective for this purpose; other studies have been inconclusive.

In any event, don’t forget to make core exercises a part of your regular exercise program. They can protect you from the aches and pains that come from injuries to the muscles, tendons and ligaments, which become more easily injured as we age.