The Ultimate Guide for a Core Strength Exercise Routine that Works

This week, we’re going to dive into all the essential pieces that go into building a good core strength exercise routine. A little core strength 101 to make sure the entire core is being addressed with your workout program!! We’re going to cover:

  • Core biomechanics (and how it relates to you)
  • Away to self-assess your own core strength so you have an idea for where to start
  • How to regularly assess your core strength so you know how to progress your core strength routine
  • A review of some of my favorite core exercises to add to your strength training days
  • How to put it all together to optimize your health!
core strength exercise routine
Did you know good core strength has nothing to do with having a “flat tummy”?

Our societal perceptions of core strength are off

The “core” is a big buzz word and has been for quite a while. Yet, it can be confusing to know exactly what it means to have a strong core.  From my experience in private clinics, many of us think of our abs (one group of our ab muscles specifically- the rectus abdominus) as our core.  And that if we have toned 6-pack abs then it’s a sign that the abs and core are strong.

Wrong! This couldn’t be farther from the truth. How a muscle looks has little to do with its actual function and its ability to coordinate with normal daily body movements. What’s more important is the core’s ability to stabilize your trunk (aka the spine) while you complete routine movements with your body.  What this is for each person varies.  Whether you’re an athlete, chasing around little ones, or work at a desk all day, the core and its ability to coordinate movement is paramount to full body health.  

Why does core strength matter anyways? 

Imagine that you want to start building your dream home. Even if you’re not an architect or physicist, you probably know that you will need to start with some form of foundation.  Without this crucial first step, anything you build on the land will be unstable and most likely collapse or be unsafe for living in long term. Not ideal for all the time, money, and energy you will spend trying to build a house of your dreams, right?

The same goes for your core strength. Our bodies are amazing and can perform an infinite number of technical moves.  However, these moves become inefficient (leaving you feeling tired or injured) when they don’t start from a stable core. Luckily, our bodies naturally know that core strength is crucial.  You can see this in the way most little kids move with great coordination and fluidity (I’m always impressed with the way my daughter naturally squats to reach things!)

what affects our core strength
Factors like pregnancy, obesity, or inactivity can affect our core strength.

External triggers that can affect our core strength

There are many factors that can affect our core’s ability to coordinate.  These include:

  • Injury to the low back (or honestly any part of the body that affects the way your move)
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Sedentary lifestyle or inactivity
  • Pregnancy, obesity or anything else that results in a diastisis recti (a separation of abdominal muscles greater than 2 millimeters)
  • Chronic pain
  • Poor posture 
  • Neural damage or paralysis in the thoracic spine
core anatomy
For a cool anatomical look at the core muscles, click here.

Core anatomy

Before we dive into how to assess and strengthen your core, a quick review of the core can help you understand what exactly is going on.  First let’s cover what muscles are actually considered part of the core (its more than you think!).  Basically all these muscles help control movement in the spine, these include:

The front of the body

  • The three abdominal muscle groups control the front
    • Transverse abdominus
    • Rectus abdominus
    • Obliques (external and internal)

The back extensors

  • These muscles provide direct support to the spine from the back
    • Multifidi 
    • Quadratum lumborum
    • Longissimus
    • Spinalis
    • Illiocostalis

The hips

  • These muscles play a crucial role in pelvis stability
    • Glutes (all 3 groups)
    • Hip rotators

Other accessory muscles

  • The “top” of the core is created by the diaphragm.
  • The bottom is the pelvic floor

That’s a lot of muscles!

While these are the primary groups, there are even more too that we didn’t cover! These muscles all work in sync to optimize your daily function.

Additionally, they are integrated with thicks bands of connective tissue (know as myofascia) to provide stability in every plane of motion (sideways, up and down, forward and back, and even diagonally). 

This stability is so important for good health since it helps support your internal organs, spinal cord, and maximizes your endurance and tolerance for anything you might need to put your body through.  

instability a sign of core weakness
If you feel unstable and need to hang onto items for balance, your core might be weak.

Signs you have a weak core

Here are a few signs that your core may be limiting your potential:

  • Poor posture
  • Exhaustion or rapid fatigue with everyday activities
  • Limited endurance
  • Frequent back pain (typically mid or low)
  • Feelings of instability or “clumsiness” with movement
  • The main feeling is one that something is off.  

Assessing your own core strength

Since there are a lot of moving parts and muscle groups that control the core, it should make sense that there are quite a few different ways to test each aspect of core strength and coordination.  We’re going to focus on the primary problem areas that many people focus.  While they should not be the only area of focus with a well balanced strength program, this assessment is a great place to start. Plus, its an eye opener for how to optimize your core routine. 

Abdominal strength

All the different muscles groups in the abs are meant to work in sync with each other to help stabilize the body in a variety different positions. What we’re about to cover is the best overall strength assessment I’ve used because it looks at how the body controls the pelvis (an important indicator of core strength- especially abdominal strength).

When I learned this assessment technique for core strength in physical therapy school, I was blown away.  In a room full of health conscious, mostly fit class mates, many of us struggled (including me) to successfully perform level 2 (of 5) of this strength assessment progression. 

The lower abdominals

When we think of abdominal strength, many of us imagine those chiseled 6 pack abs. Ironically, this specific muscle group is also the least supportive muscle group for many of our normal everyday activities. What’s more important is being able to properly activate and coordinate the obliques and lower abs. 

The lower abs are especially important because of the way they wrap around the pelvis and belly like a built in girdle.  These muscles can get weak with improper use and require some retraining.  By assessing your overall strength, you can get a feel for your current strength and make a plan for moving forward. 

How to “find” your lower abs

Before going into the assessment, let’s review how to activate your abs in “sync” first. Keep these tips in mind:

  • As you tighten your abs, you should still be able to breathe and your lower abs should flatten the belly slightly. 
  • If you’re not sure if your lower abs are tight, you can poke around right inside your pelvis bones on each side. You should feel the muscle flicker and tense up as you tighten. 
  • To get the lower abs (or transverse abdomens) to fire you can imagine that someone is about to punch you in the stomach or that you’re bringing your belly button towards your spine (both common cues that work). 
  • You can also feel these muscles working when you take a deep breath and exhale forcefully.  

Your ability to control our low back and pelvis is key

With each level in the assessment we’re about to cover, you should be able keep the pelvis and low back in a stable position. 

  • The low back shouldn’t arch due to the pelvis coming forward or rolling sideways. 
  • If at any time you feel this occurring in your back and pelvis (you can puts your hands on your hips as you move to get a better feel) then you have “failed.” 
  • You can determine what level you are at by being able to successfully complete 5 full reps while maintaining stability. 
  • Whichever level you land at, this is also a great starting point for your core program.
  • Lastly, watch for abdominal “pooching” meaning you lose your muscle activation and the middle muscles bulge out. This counts as a fail too. 

Let’s start the assessment

Start by lying on your back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor.  Here are the steps (this is known as the Sahrmann test for core stability):

  1. Keep your low back in neutral (not overly arched, not flat- somewhere in the middle that feels comfortable and natural for your spine) as you tighten your abs. If you can tighten your abs and hold with proper muscle activation and breathing, you can proceed to level 1.
  2. Level 1- In the same position as above with the abs tight, now lift one foot of the ground bringing your knee toward your chest until it is level with your hips (about 90 degrees of hip flexion).  Then slowly lower the foot to the ground and try the other foot.  Alternate between the two legs for 5 reps on each leg.  
  3. Level 2- For the next 4 levels, the starting position will now always be with your hips flexed to 90 degrees (feet off the ground). Now, bring one heel down toward the ground and then slide it away from your body until the knee is fully extended. Then, slide it back to the starting position and switch to the other side. Alternate for 5 reps on each side. If you have any hip flexibility issues (a common issue with core weakness) you may struggle with this level. 
  4. Level 3- With hips flexed again, this time bring your heel down until it is hovering around 6 inches from the ground. Then straighten the knee and extend it as before but without letting your leg touch the ground this time. Alternate sides for 5 reps. Proceed if you complete them successfully. 
  5. Level 4- Same starting position, this time touch both heels to ground at the same time. Then, extend them out straight (as you did with level 2) before returning to the starting position.  
  6. Level 5- Same starting position, same movement as level 3 (with the heel hovering) except now you will complete it with both heels in sync.  The legs should stay about hip width apart. Repeat 5 times.If you got to this level, congratulations!  You mostly need to focus on maintenance rather than re-education or coordination. 
core strength assessment embarrassment
My experience with the core strength assessment left me shocked!

My experience with this core strength assessment

I kid you not, the first time I did this test I couldn’t get past level 2.  My low back was arching and my pelvis was rolling sideways all over the place.  It was a mess.  So I started focusing on that level 2 move and felt so embarrassed and frustrated that suddenly my abs exercises were so hard for me. 

I had been regularly attending a 30 minutes “abs express” program at the university each week and I realized how inefficient it was because I wasn’t activating the right muscles.  I learned that once my muscles were fatigued and the moves were too hard, I was simply putting unnecessary stress on my spine and causing my ab muscles to be out of balance.  Oops! 

This assessment can be a game changer for your health

This is the number one issue most of my patient’s faced when they had low back pain or general issues with low endurance.  The first time we went through this assessment, we couldn’t even get started because trying to “find the lower ab muscles” was leading to some pretty gnarly cramping in their lats and neck (as you may suspect- these are NOT supposed to fire with ab work!).

I was a college athlete and avid exerciser and still struggled- so even if you think your abs are strong, I encourage you to try this test and see what you find out! It can help you make your core routine that much better for the future. 

core strength asessment
Assess your pelvic floor and diaphragm strength

Other noteworthy tests for core strength:

I’m going to quickly cover the pelvic floor and diaphragm for assessment too.

The pelvic floor

I’m not going to go into depth on pelvic floor strength today but I wanted to remind you just how important it is for overall health and core strength.  These muscles sit in the bottom of your pelvis and provide important stability. Plus, they also play a key role in sexual health, keeping your organs from prolapsing, and keeping you from peeing when you sneeze or laugh.  

The Kegel

If you’ve ever heard of a Kegel (lifting the pelvis floor muscles as if you were going to stop peeing mid-stream), this is a great place to start. You can simply test your endurance by seeing how long you can hold one repetition, how many repetitions you can do in a row, and even test your ability to quickly “flick” on those muscles over and over again.  While there’s no magic  number for how long or many repetitions you can do, the key is that you can do it comfortably and you aren’t experiencing any of the symptoms we discussed in the paragraph above (that goes for men too!).

The Diaphragm

The diaphragm is a very important core stabilizer as well that often gets neglected. The most common issue with the diaphragm that needs to be addressed is how it’s coordinated with breathing.  You’ve probably heard that you can breath with your belly (diaphragm) or chest (accessory muscles that should only be reserved for high intensity activities that require hard breathing). 

Are you a belly breather or a chest breather?

To assess, its easiest to start by lying on your back. However, you can also try it in standing or sitting. Start by placing one hand on your chest and one on your belly and breathe normally. Notice where most of the movement is coming from. 

  • If it’s coming more from the chest, can you focus on the hand on your belly and raise it more there? 
  • From there, can you breathe like this in different positions?

Often, certain positions or events that are stressful or painful can lead to us breathing with our chest, this leads to limited core stability and can cause a lot of unnecessary tension in the upper body as well.  The best way to get started is with this awareness and then build from there!

Other muscle groups to assess for core strength

There’s a lot of overlap in muscle strength tests that could help you gain a further understanding of your endurance. Here is a list of just a few other muscle groups that we will cover in future articles regarding upper and lower body strength:

  • Glutes
  • Lateral hip stability
  • Rotator cuff strength
  • Middle back and trapezius strength and coordination
core workout routine
Find a core routine that works for you

How to get started with a core strength routine

If you’ve read through the 5 levels of core strength above, then you should have a great idea of where you can start with your core routine.  In fact, that is the first step I recommend.  Work on gaining control with that move and then progress from there.  Outside of that, here are my favorite core strength exercises. 

  1. Toe Taps:  Start by lying on your back with both hips flexed to 90 degrees.  Bring one toe down toward the ground and tap the floor before returning to the starting position. Alternate legs. The further you reach with your toe the harder your core will have to work. Choose a distance that you can control.  Repeat 15-20 times on each leg for 2-3 sets. For a video demo, look here.
  2. Bent knee fall out: Lie on your back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Then, keep one leg stationary while the other knee “falls” sideways toward the floor. Focus on keeping the core tight to prevent rotation in the spine. How far the knee can drop depends on what you can control and your hip flexibility. Repeat 15-20 times on each side for 2-3 sets.  For a video demo, look here.
  3. Bridges: Lie on your back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor about hip width apart. Have the heels about 6 inches in front of the knees to start (you can adjust for comfort as needed). Tighten the core and squeeze your butt as you lift your butt off the ground. Hold for 3-5 seconds at the top.  If you experience a hamstring cramp, you care not using your butt enough or you’re lifting too high to start. Progression options include tying a resistance band around your knees to work the sides of the hips or lifting from only one leg at a time.  For a demo, look here.
  4. Planks: Starting on your hands and knees, place your forearms on the the ground. What part of our lower body you will shift onto depends on your strength (toes or knees). When ready, transfer your weight evenly between your arms and legs. Work on holding for 30+ seconds with a goal of holding for 60 seconds at time if tolerated.  Your entire spine should create a straight line when the core is tight and the hips should be neutral (the butt isn’t high or sagging).  See a demo here.
  5. Applying it all to your daily activities.  No amount of core strengthening is going to help you if you don’t pay attention to how you’re using it with daily activities.  This carry over is crucial for balanced spine health.  While in the long term, we don’t want to have to think about our core strength every time we move, however if there is weakness it needs to re-trained and ingrained into your body’s muscle memory again first.  So think about how you’re moving when you do normal activities, these might include:  getting up from a chair, picking something up, holding an item, reaching for something, sitting at a desk, your normal exercise routine, etc. 

Common issues to address with your core strength routine

Signs your core routine is too hard or needs to be adjusted:

  • Back pain
  • Abdominal pooching (as we discussed above)
  • Muscle cramping in areas that you are not focusing on
  • Inability to regularly breath (or at least in a rhythm with your movement)
  • Poor control of the low back and pelvis with your core exercises
maximizing your core strength  exercise routine
Maximizing your core strength exercise routine

How to maximize our core routine

Here are a few last quick tips for optimizing your core routine:

  • If you feel clumsy or like you can’t hold good form, modify!
  • Try warming up the core first with some simple tightening and relaxing if needed
  • Remember to keep the upper body relaxed
  • Focus on rhythmic breathing. 
  • Progress with less support and more reaching as tolerated
  • Make sure it applied to our daily activities!

Related read: 8 Fitness Habits To Conquer This Year

Addressing other factors:

There might be other factors affecting your core strength that you want to address simultaneously, these include:

  • Weight loss. Core strength and coordination are significantly harder to achieve when you are lugging around some extra pounds. Losing weight can minimize strain on the core muscles and spine. Options may include better stress management, eating a whole foods plant based diet, or increasing activity levels.
  • Increasing your activity level. Exercise and regular movement of the body is good for so much more than core strength. If you know you need to be more active, start small and you’ll instantly feel how it helps build core strength, fitness levels, and overall quality of life.
  • Improving muscle coordination. If you feel our overall endurance and strength are low, core strength is a great place to start. Yet, you may find you need to add in other major muscle groups to start gradually building your strength and stamina for your daily activities.
  • Proper management of chronic health diseases. Whether it’s pain, heart disease, Diabetes, or any other health issue, making sure it’s well managed can help optimize your core routine and boost your energy levels.
a core strength routine is easy
Making core strength a regular part of your routine can be easy!

We all can make improvements!

No matter who you are, I hope you gained a better awareness of your core and have some ideas for making your core routine better (or how to get started).  I want this information to help you feel empowered. In fact, this is often literally exactly what we cover with the first session or two of physical therapy for anyone experiencing pain, particularly in the back.  I hope you will take this information and use it to live your best life.

Now that you understand how to optimize your core strength, I hope the core strengthening video I post later this month will be immensely helpful.

I’d love to hear.  What’s one of your favorite core exercises?  And did you learn anything new about how to adjust it to your body’s needs?

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