Saturday, May 9, 2009

Core Training Basics

Core training is crucial to developing whole body strength and stability. Core exercises aren’t always our favorites, but they should be, because they give us the foundation that allows us to build strength and flexibility everywhere else.

Core training is actually about the prevention of motion by using your core muscles to stabilize while you move other body parts. In all core movements, you should hold your body as if you are standing upright with good posture. For prone exercises, this concept still applies, but the body obviously has a different relationship to gravity.

With these things in mind, here are some basic core strengtheners for you to practice as “homework” between your sessions with me:

Develops whole core strength, including the muscles that support the hips, as well as shoulder strength

  1. Lay on your stomach.
  2. Position elbows directly under shoulders, with forearms flat against floor at a right angle.
  3. Lift up hips to neutralize the spine. If this is too difficult or causes any level of strain or discomfort in your low back, spike your hips up as much as necessary to relieve low back. No sagging!
  4. Squeeze quads and butt and brace your core, drawing the belly button in.
  5. Tuck chin to create a straight line from ears to heels.
  6. Hold for 1 minute.

Tip: to ensure that your alignment is perfect, try this one beside a big mirror and take frequent glimpses at the position of your body to make sure you aren’t sagging and that your arms are at a supportive right angle.

Develop lower abdominal strength

  1. Lay on your back.
  2. Locking your pelvis in neutral position while depressing your low back to the floor, lift both legs to the sky to attain 90 degrees at the hips.
  3. Lower one leg slowly toward the ground until you feel your core strength begin to engage.
  4. Switch leg positions slowly and continue for 12 repetitions on each side.
  5. For a stronger challenge, lower your leg until your heel almost touches the ground. If you feel overly challenged, limit the depth you lower your leg to.

Tip: It’s important to really listen to your back and any pangs of discomfort. Once your core muscles stop doing the work, your back will take on too much strain. That’s when you know it’s time to stop.

Develops glute (butt) muscle activation

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent to 90 degrees, feet hip width and flat on the floor.
  2. Place and squeeze a rolled up towel between your knees and squeeze gently.
  3. Take your hips to the sky by firing your glutes.
  4. Hold for one minute with a straight line between your hips and knees. If you feel the burn more in your hamstrings (backs of your legs) or spinal erectors (low back) you are not using your glutes enough. Bring more weight into your legs and squeeze harder.

Tip: In the beginning, the easiest way to fire the glutes is to squeeze your butt. As you get stronger and more adept, try firing your hamstrings and glutes straight up instead of together.

Work the obliques (love handle area)

  1. Lie on one side with your forearm on the ground and your elbow beneath your shoulder. Your arm should be at a right angle.
  2. Hold your body in a straight line and flex your toes toward your shins. Engaging the core, pull your body up to support your body weight between your elbow and bottom foot. Don’t sag.
  3. Push your hips forward and hold for 45 seconds.
  4. Repeat on opposite side.

Of course, there are dozens of core exercises and hundreds of variations, but these are a well-rounded group of staples to establish in your routine. Remember, if you want a tougher workout, do multiple sets. Don't kill yourself in any one set. You always want to perform any exercise you are doing with a high degree of proficiency. Also, if your back feels any level of strain, stop immediately. This is a sign your abdominal muscles can no longer support your spine in the position you are in.

Ultimately, your goal is to use your core in all exercises and even in your daily posture. Just by holding a tall, neutral spine in any exercise, and slightly engaging your abdominal muscles, you are working the core. Get in the habit of continually reminding yourself to draw in the belly and brace the core in any lift you do at the gym.

Lark Miller
phone: 415.250.5236


  1. Hey Lark, great collection of exercises! I'm looking forward to encorporating them into my routine! A couple of questions: For the leg lifts, does it matter if the legs are bent or straight? Also, for bridge, how many reps do you recommend? Is it better to do one bridge for as long as possible, or do more shorter reps? Thanks in advance!

  2. Leg lifts- ideally your legs are held straight. However, if it is difficult to keep your low back depressed and it begins to arch up off the matt, simply bend your knees to 90 degrees to make the exercise easier. In the bridge I recommend a 45 second hold. This is sufficient to give most people a solid burn in the butt. I like to see two sets of this exercise performed with a set of leg lifts in between sets. If 45 secs does not produce muscle burn or only very light muscle burn then it is time to start marching your legs by lifting your heels off the floor alternately. The key to this is to keep your hips level and limit any shifting of the hips as you transition from two legs to one. If your hips are shifting to one side when you go onto one leg, go back to holding both heels on the ground and either hold for longer than 45 secs or do more sets to challenge yourself for another two weeks and then try marching again.