There’s a lot more to core strength than six-pack abs. Your abdominal muscles are responsible for stabilizing your entire midsection and transferring power between your upper and lower body, which are musts for everything from proper posture to healthy movement patterns. “This means that for those who are active, a strong core not only prevents injury but also allows you to swing a bat harder, lift heavier, or run faster,” says Josh Feldkamp, C.S.C.S., a performance coach for the training app Future.
Its payoffs carry over into everyday life, too, allowing you to walk up and down stairs, bend over, lift groceries, and the like with greater ease, adds strength and conditioning coach Marc Megna, C.S.C.S. That might not seem like a big deal right now, but it can make or break quality of life down the road.
Plus, when your core isn’t strong, your lower back compensates, leaving you with crummy posture, lower back pain, and the likelihood of poor form when training.
Your move here is a no-brainer: Incorporate core-focused exercises into your workout routine to keep those midsection muscles balanced and strong. Of course, how you do those core exercises matters—so keep these expert tips in mind during your next workout.
1. Tuck Your Tailbone to Keep Your Pelvis Neutral
When doing exercises like planks, hollow holds, or dead bugs, tuck your tailbone so your pelvis is in a neutral position. “Most individuals who sit most of the day tend to have an ‘anterior’ pelvic tilt, in which the top of the pelvis is rotated forward,” Feldkamp explains. An anterior pelvic tilt can cause an increased lordotic curve of the spine (think too much arch in the lower back), which can negatively affect posture and weaken transverse abdominis and oblique muscles long-term, Feldkamp says. This puts you at high risk of injury, especially if you frequently do strength training workouts.
To fix this, roll your hips under you and pull your belly button in, Feldkamp suggests. From there, “pretend you’re wearing a belt around your stomach and push out against that imaginary belt to engage your core,” he says.
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This positioning protects your back from injury during exercise. “When you tuck your tailbone, you bring the pelvis into a neutral position, which allows your muscles to be in their natural state, creates a natural curve of the spine, and means less stress in your back,” explains Feldkamp.
2. Engage Your Deep Core Muscles
Mindfully engaging your deep core muscles (your transverse abdominis and internal obliques) helps maintain their activation during exercise and makes for greater results, such as improved strength and core definition, notes Feldkamp. While these muscles repeatedly turn on and off during less mindful core work, keeping them fired up increases their time under tension, which maximizes the impact of your exercises.
Turn on your deep core with warm-up exercises like weight shifts, side planks, deadbugs, and goblet squats, Megna suggests. “By engaging your deep core in a warm-up, you prime your body for the upcoming movement and make it easier to engage your core throughout,” Megna says. Ideally, you’ll spend up to 10 minutes prepping with these moves before getting to the meat of your routine.
3. Mind Your Breathing
Your breath has a big impact on your training, and tweaking your breathing during core work is a simple way to get more out of the moves. “Breathing properly is super-important because the abs act as expiration muscles during breathing, so by learning to control our breathing correctly, we actually learn to properly use our abdominal muscles,” Feldkamp says.
Your goal here is to “breathe while bracing,” which means keeping your abs engaged while still maintaining controlled, rhythmic breathing. To practice, start by laying on your back with your legs bent and remove the arch in your lower back to engage your core muscles, Feldkamp says. Keeping your core braced, practice breathing in and out through your belly. Staying keyed into this breathing pattern will add rhythm to your workouts and provide greater stability as you move, Megna adds.
4. Don’t Pull on Your Head
When doing abs moves like sit-ups, crunches, and reverse crunches, avoid pulling on your head, which is a recipe for strained neck muscles. It’s also a less-than-ideal body position that too many of us already spend enough time in! You see, if you spend a lot of the day looking down at your phone or computer, your neck is already in flexion often, Feldkamp explains. The last thing you want to do is pull your neck further into that position during exercise.
During these exercises, place your fingertips on the outside edges of your ears and keep your palms open. “This places your elbows in a comfortable position but reduces your ability to pull on you head and neck,” Feldkamp says. If you aren’t doing an “elbow-to-knee” movement (think bicycles, sprinters, or crunches), cross your arms over your chest and place your hands on your shoulders, he advises.
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That said, “if you find yourself pulling on your head during abs exercises, modify your exercise selection or reduce your reps and sets to however many you can do without tugging so that you can engage your core while protecting your neck,” Feldkamp suggests. Often, pulling on your head signals that your core muscles can’t handle the exercise as is, and thus you need to tweak it.
5. Don’t Rush To Add Reps Or Weight
Many of the core exercises you’re probably familiar with are perfectly effective when performed with just your body weight. In some cases, you can add resistance with weights over time, but don’t get ahead of yourself. Adding weight too quickly increases your risk of injury due to DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) or causes you to compensate with other muscle groups, Feldkamp says. If your core isn’t strong enough to handle the additional challenge (whether that’s weight or extra reps), it recruits other muscles to help out, which often end up doing more of the “heavy lifting” than your actual abs, Feldkamp explains. In many exercises, your hip flexors often end up working harder than your core.
Whether you want to incorporate weight or increase your time under tension, slow and steady is your best bet.
If you’re newer to working out, Feldkamp recommends starting with:
- Two or three days of core work per week
- Two or three sets of eight to 12 reps of each exercise
- 20- to 40-second holds for static moves like planks and hollow-body holds
If you have a solid training background, you can increase reps and sets at a quicker pace. Shoot for:
- Three to five days of core work per week
- Two to four sets of 10 to 15 reps of each exercise
- 30- to 60-second holds for static moves like planks and hollow-body holds
If you’re a veteran gym-goer, try:
- Two to seven days of core work per week
- Three to four sets of 12 to 20 reps of each exercise, using weight
- 45-plus-second holds for static moves like planks and hollow-body holds
6. Squeeze Your Glutes, Quads, and Abs
When in a plank, squeeze your butt, quads, and abs to reap the most benefits from the position. “While bracing those muscles may reduce your overall plank time, you know that your body is in the right position and that activating the correct muscles plays into your long-term health and success,” Feldkamp says. If you don’t fire up all of these muscles when doing planks, there’s less stability in the hips and back, which can compromise alignment and lead to pain or injury.