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signs you have a weak core: woman doing plank

4 Signs You Have A Weak Core—And How To Build Strength Fast

Whether you’re hauling groceries or lifting a loaded barbell, you need a strong core to move safely and effectively. These muscles, which are located in the abdomen, lower back, hips, and pelvic area, are responsible for stabilizing and supporting the spine and pelvis to assist in general movement and posture, according to physical therapist Lalitha McSorley, owner of Brentwood Physiotherapy Calgary. A strong core keeps you balanced and stable during movement, reduces your risk of injury, and allows you to perform at your absolute best during sport and physical activity.

On the flipside, “a weak core can lead to various problems, including poor posture, reduced stability and balance, increased risk of injury during physical activities, decreased performance in workouts, and musculoskeletal issues like back pain,” McSorley says. 

Since core strength is so crucial for a lifetime of health and safe movement, you’re going to want to address any weaknesses. Use this guide to evaluate whether your core strength might need some work, and how to build it up ASAP.

Signs You Have A Weak Core

Worried that your core might not be as solid as you think? Look out for these telltale signs of a weak core.

1. Low back pain

Generally, if you suffer from low back pain, you likely have weak core muscles, McSorley notes. You see, your core muscles are responsible for supporting your spine, so if they’re unable to properly do so while you sit, stand, and move throughout the day, your spine ends up bearing excess pressure. Over time, this can lead to pain, often in your lower back.

For the same reason, weak core muscles may also make you more likely to injure your back during exercise, McSorley adds. So if you feel achy or twinge-y after hitting the weight room, you might need to step up your core game in order to continue to lift without putting unnecessary strain on your lower back.

2. Poor posture 

Not only is poor posture one of the most common destroyers of core strength, but it ultimately becomes one of the most notable indicators that you need to toughen up your trunk. According to McSorley, you do not properly engage your core muscles any time you slouch (whether sitting or standing), which can result in muscle imbalances and overall weakness over time.

Read More: 6 Ways Poor Posture Affects Your Body Long-Term

So, if you spend much of your time hunched over at your desk or have noticed slumpy posture, take note: You can bet your core muscles are weak (or at least getting weaker) and need proper engagement, as well as strengthening exercises.

3. Difficulty holding a plank

A quick test you can do pretty much any time to determine the state of your core strength? Drop down into a plank, suggests McSorley. “Being able to hold a plank for 60 seconds or more with good form indicates a strong core,” she notes. If you can’t make it that long, consider it a sign that your core muscles need some attention.

4. a sedentary lifestyle 

Like poor posture, a sedentary lifestyle is another factor that both causes and then indicates core weakness. Your muscles need to be regularly (and properly) engaged in order to remain strong, healthy, and balanced over time, McSorley says. When you spend the majority of your time sitting or lounging around, your core muscles become weak and imbalanced.

Your first order of business here is to schedule 30 to 60 minutes of exercise at least three to five days per week, she suggests. You’ll also want to be mindful of spending more than an hour at a time sitting down. McSorley recommends getting up and moving around at least every 60 minutes throughout the day. 

The Best Exercises For Building Core Strength

If you’ve identified less-than-stellar core strength, you’re probably wondering how you can tighten things up. And while there are a million core exercises out there, you only need a handful of foundational moves to start building strength fast. Here are four the experts recommend. 

1. Plank

“The plank is a popular exercise that engages the entire core, including the abdominal muscles, lower back, and hips,” McSorley says. “This exercise is great for building core strength as it requires the muscles to work together to maintain stability and alignment.”

How long you hold a plank for will depend on your fitness level and core strength—and will creep up pretty quickly as you practice (which is part of the reason it’s so great!). “Start with shorter durations and gradually increase as you build strength,” McSorley suggests. “Aim for three to four sets of 20 to 30 seconds and progress to longer holds.” 

Start with either a forearm plank or straight arm plank. As you master those, you can incorporate plank variations, such as side planks, planks with leg lifts, planks with arm reaches, and planks with knee taps, for an extra challenge, she suggests.

2. Deadlift

You might not consider the deadlift to be a must-do core move, but it works your midsection in a way few other exercises can. “The deadlift is a compound exercise that targets multiple muscle groups, including the core, as you’ll need to engage your core muscles to stabilize your spine and pelvis as you lift the weight up from the floor with sound form,” McSorley says. 

For maximum strength gains, start with three to four sets of six to 10 repetitions using a weight that challenges you but doesn’t pull your form out-of-whack, she advises. 

Read More: 4 Deadlift Mistakes You Might Be Making—And How To Fix Them

When doing deadlifts, engage and tighten your core muscles to protect your lower back and use your breath to support your movement. “Inhale before lifting the weight, exhale during the lifting phase, and inhale again as you lower the weight,” McSorley recommends.

3. The Pilates “Hundred” or “Scissor”

Pilates is a great exercise modality for strengthening the core and involves working through a series of controlled movements. “Pilates exercises often involve engaging the deep abdominal muscles, lower back, and pelvic floor, which can help improve core strength, stability, and flexibility,” McSorley explains. Two particular Pilates exercises she recommends: the Hundred and the Pilates Scissor. 

“The Hundred involves lying on your back and engaging your core while pumping your arms,” she describes. (Check out this video for a demo.) “Meanwhile, the Pilates Scissor involves lying on your back and performing scissor-like leg movements while engaging the core,” McSorley adds. (Here’s a demo video for that one.) You can do these exercises on a mat on the floor or with the assistance of a reformer machine (a piece of equipment used in Pilates). Start on the mat and work your way up to using the reformer machine as you advance. 

As with planks, start with three to four sets of 20 to 30 seconds of work, and then progress to longer intervals.

4. Medicine Ball Twists

Grab a medicine ball (or swap for a dumbbell or kettlebell, if preferred) and twist to engage your core. “Medicine ball twists are effective for building core strength as they target the oblique muscles, which are responsible for rotational movements of the trunk, and also challenge stability and balance,” McSorley says.

Read More: Why Your Gains Have Stalled On 4 Key Strength Exercises

To perform them, sit on the floor with knees bent and feet flat on the ground, holding a medicine ball with both hands. Lean back slightly, keeping your back straight and core engaged, and rotate your torso to one side, touching the medicine ball to the ground beside your hip. Rotate to the other side and repeat.

Try three to four sets of about 10 reps and increase your weight as you gain strength. Of course, you can start off with just your body weight if needed!

How to Build a Core-Strengthening Routine

To make the core gains you’re looking for, ensure that your workout routine puts your core to the test at least two or three times per week, suggests McSorley. That can mean that you either hit your core via compound exercises like deadlifts or that you dedicate 10 to 15 minutes to a few core-specific exercises, she says. The key is to be consistent so you can progressively challenge your core muscles and continue to make strength gains.

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