When you hear ‘core exercises’, most likely the first thing that comes to mind is ab exercises and you would be correct… almost.

Your ‘core’ includes everything from your shoulders to your knees, with a strong focus on your abdominals, lower back and glutes (butt).

When you neglect to train your core, it’s like forgetting to build a house with support beams: there is decent framework there but it crumples and falls apart when we use it for its intended purpose.

Core training is more than just ab crunches. Think about it: what helps hold your body upright? It’s your spine! Training all the muscles from the top to the base of your spine is just as important, if not more important that isolated abdominal focus. Plus, if your main go-to core exercise is crunches, then you are basically training yourself to get better at crunches, not to have great abs. If it’s sixpack, show-off abs you want, then those are made in the kitchen, my friend, with very carefully planned eating.

The best core exercises you can do are the ones that force you to move your limbs in a variety of directions while holding your torso in neutral spine position (or think, tall, elongated posture).

There are also many core exercises that have your rotating through your waistline that are great practice for the things we do in everyday life, sport and jobs that are physical.

First, let’s talk about core stability. Think back to that house with no beams. If you lack stability, then you will put more stress on your frame and cause hunching or arching of the back and abdominals and set yourself up for injury.

Performing various plank positions is a great way to train core stability (hand plank, elbow plank, one-legged plank, side-plank).

The proper way to execute a plank, no matter what variation, is to pretend you have a wooded dowel stuck from top of your head to tailbone and you can’t bend or bow away from that. Use mirrors or ask a trainer to watch your form. Don’t make yourself hold plank for a really long time just for the sake of time. If you can only do it properly for three seconds, start with that. Next time go for four, then five and so one. Doing any exercise sloppy because you were told a certain time or reps is just plain silly. Quality over Quantity.

Some other core stability exercises include reverse plank (looks like plank, but you are facing up with hands on the floor behind you), tree or star pose (standing on one leg with other foot pressed to your leg or leg lifted to side, arms overhead or out to sides at shoulder level) and warrior III pose. (Tips at the hips on one leg and extend other leg until body and leg are parallel to the floor, with or without a weight.)

Really, any exercise that makes you hold on in one place for an extended period is going to strengthen your core stabilizers and help improve your posture. For all of these exercises, make sure chin is up, chest is proud and open, abdominals are strong pulled tight (not too tight that you can’t breathe), glutes and low back are bracing the position.

The next focus is on core functionality. This is all the dynamic exercises that allow you to have range of motion, mobility and flexibility so that you can prevent or recover easily from injury and be able to do many movements while maintaining strong posture. We don’t want you to be a wet noodle, but we don’t want a dry, stiff one either. Your limbs can move freely and your trunk can bend without breaking or tearing and return to its strong shape when not under stress: a solid but flexible tree.

Some great core mobility exercises include kettlebell swings, or low squat front raise overhead (hold weight low with body upright and then extend legs at the same time as raising arms out front and all the way overhead, with or without weight), around the word (start in low squat with arms hanging but body and shoulder upright, then bring the arms in a big circle to the side and overhead and back around again, repeat in the other direction), squat to overhead raise with a lunge (keep arms strait as you raise them overhead), hip to shoulder rotation with crouch / lunge (crouch or lunge back with weight beside front hip, shoulders rotated to face hip, lunge lack leg forward as you bring weight to the opposite shoulder, repeat for more reps and the repeat other side).

Abdominal curls have their place still and the best position for this is on a stability ball where you can hyperextend your back a bit and then squeeze your abdominals as your raise your shoulders to come to neutral spine or a little higher with the chest.

You can do full sit-ups, but the intention should be to practice getting up (off the floor, out of bed, off the couch). In fact, take your crunches to the next level by performing get-ups (pictured; curl up as you reach back and then lift your hips to tabletop position, with or without holding a weight overhead).

For the most part, keep your exercises slow and controlled. Quick power has its place, but only add this when you have mastered the basic skills or when you are working with a trainer for very specific goals. Cranking out 100 crunches in a minute or so is doing more damage than good.

As with any exercise, make sure to stretch and relax your core muscles. We use them all day long and it’s important that we treat them well with a nice long stretch at the end of a workout.

Sign up for an orientation in the Student Wellness Centre or attend six-pack and Backpack or Yoga classes offered daily to have guided direction in training your core.

Karen Nixon-Carroll is the Program Manager at Fanshawe’s Fitness Centre.