We could rattle off all the perks of a stronger core, but you probably already know them (OK, we can’t help it! Here are two great ones: you’ll have an easier time wrestling into your skinny jeans and they up your chances of nailing an awesome tennis serve). But what you probably didn’t realize? Even if you’re exercising regularly, there’s a good chance you’re still going through life with sub-par belly brawn.
“Lack of core strength is the number one imbalance that we see with our clients,” says trainer Bruce Mack, cofounder of MBSC Thrive Functional Training. “If you don’t correct it, you’re not only more likely to experience nagging aches and pains—especially in the hips, knees, and low back—but you’re also more at risk for injury.”
Strengthen your core muscles (and get a flat belly while you’re at it) with Mack’s simple, super-effective routine.
1. Diaphragm Breathing
Lie on your back with knees bent and raised over your hips. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Keeping your back connected with the floor, take a deep breath in through your nose, filling all the way up, allowing your belly to rise (A). Exhale fully through your mouth, emptying out completely and pulling belly button towards your spine (B). Perform 12 to 15 reps.
2. Active Forearm Plank
Get into a forearm plank position, elbows directly under shoulders, forearms pressing into floor. Hold this position for 30 to 34 seconds, actively pulling your elbows to the toes to really turn on your core muscles. Repeat 2 more times, resting for 20 to 30 seconds between reps.
3. Plank Taps
Start on all fours with wrists under shoulders and knees under hips. Step one foot back, then the other, coming into plank position. Press your heels behind you and engage your core, thighs, and glutes, keeping your body in a straight line (no sinking of your hips). Imagine pulling your elbows to your toes to turn on your core muscles further. Lift one hand and tap it to the opposite shoulder, then bring it back down to the floor. Repeat with the opposite hand. Continue alternating hands, making sure to breathe in through your nose and forcefully out through your mouth (this will help you keep the core engaged). Perform 15 reps each side.
4. Side Plank
Start in a plank position, making sure that your wrists are under your shoulders and that your body is in a straight line. Roll your heels to the right and come into side plank, stacking your feet and reaching your top arm overhead. Hold for 10 to 15 deep breaths, then repeat on the opposite side.
5. Kneeling Chops
Secure one end of a resistance band to the top of a doorjamb or another stable point overhead. Holding the opposite end of the band in both hands, come to a tall kneeling position and bring your hands to shoulder height as shown (A). Pull the band to your chest (B) and then chop it down and across your body to the opposite hip (C). Slowly reverse the movement, returning hands to shoulder height. Keep your hips locked and facing forward throughout the movement. Do 2 or 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps on each side.
Tip: For more of a challenge, do this move while holding a lunge position, hovering your back knee a few inches above the floor throughout the movement.
6. Hip Lifts
Lie on your back with your knees bent, heels down and toes lifted (knees and feet are hip-width apart)(A). Lift your hips off the floor, squeezing your glutes (B). Hold for 1 count, then lower hips back to the floor. Do 2 or 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps.
7. Bear Crawls
Start on all fours with knees under hips and wrists under shoulders (A). Lift your right hand and left knee a few inches off the floor and move them 4 to 6 inches forward (B). Repeat with the left hand and right knee (C). Continue crawling forward, being careful to move the opposite hand and knee in unison. Do 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps (a “rep” is when the left hand hits the ground).
Tip: For more of a challenge, keep your knees lifted throughout the exercise and crawl on the balls of your feet.
8. Half Getup
Lie on your back as shown, with your right knee bent (right foot flat on the floor) and left leg on the floor and extended away from your body at a slight diagonal. Extend your right arm to the ceiling, keeping it in-line with your chest, and extend your left arm on the floor and slightly away from the body at a diagonal (A). Using your core muscles, lift your shoulders and start to roll your torso off the ground, bending your left arm and pressing your forearm into floor to keep you stable (B). Reach through your right arm and lift your torso higher as you straighten your left arm and press your left palm into the floor (C). Now, pushing through your left hand and right foot, lift your hips to the ceiling, keeping left leg straight (D). Hold for 1 count, then slowly reverse the move back to the starting position. Do 5 reps on each side.
Tip: For more of a challenge, add weight by holding a dumbbell in the hand that reaches overhead.
Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding 1 heavy weight in each hand (start at about 15 pounds and increase if it feels too light) , arms by your sides. Pinch your shoulder blades together and roll your shoulders away from your ears. Keeping your core tight, slowly start to walk forward, making sure your foot rolls from heel to toe with each step. Continue walking for 45 seconds or about 40 yards, depending on your space. Bend at your knees and carefully lower weights to the ground to protect your back. Do 2 or 3 sets.