1. Do it right
Ensure that you know how to ‘activate your core’, as many people think they are doing it properly and they are actually using other muscles such as there back. This can lead to injury.
- Gyms usually offer short core-strength classes, a personal trainer can review with you or pilates teachers are well trained.
- If you much prefer exercising at home, it is even more important to make sure you are doing exercises correctly to avoid injury. Apps such as Gixo and TrueBe can be helpful.
- Your Chiropractor can check to make sure you are activating your core correctly.
Switching on your core
Lye on your back, knees bent. Take a big breath into your belly, and as you breathe out focus on:
- Flattening your spine or your navel to the floor
- Bring your pelvic bone slightly towards your head (like zipping up trousers)
- Contracting your pelvic muscles (like stopping your urine mid-flow or bearing down)
Hold for 5 seconds, then relax & repeat. Like any muscle in your body, it takes time to strengthen. This can also be done in any posture: Focus on switching on your core before doing any exercise.
2. Make the time
Once you know how to activate your core, incorporate it into your everyday life. You can strengthen your core with everyday movements, like carrying the shopping, lifting or getting out of bed in the morning. An analysis of studies on people with chronic low back pain, found that “core stability exercise was better than general exercise for reducing pain”.
As well as incorporating core activation into everyday activities, it is a great idea to aim for 2-5 minutes everyday of core strength exercises. This may be at home, or as a part of a exercise routine or pilates class.
Plank exercises use more muscles at the front, side and back of your core. There are many different varieties, starting with the simple half plank – on your forearms and knees, rather than toes, maintaining a straight back. Longer is not always better: good form maintained for a small time is much better than bad form dragged out for minutes.
Start by lying face down. Place your elbows and forearms underneath your chest, switch on core, lift your pelvis until you trunk and legs are in a straight line (plank). Level 1 knees on floor, level 2 on toes. Keep your back flat and don’t let your hips sag towards the floor. Hold while focusing on tightening your abs. Beginners can start with holding for 10 seconds, with a 10 second break (repeat three times). Build up to hold for 1 minute, with a 20 second break (repeat three times).
4. Dead bugs
Dead bugs are one of the simplest and most effective core exercises. Lie on your back with your arms extended, knees bent at 90 degrees, calves parallel to the floor. Keeping your lower back in contact with the floor (eg. core activated), extend and lower your left leg as you slowly count to four, and bring your right arm up (arms are optional). Tap your heel to the floor, count to four as you return your leg and arm to the start and repeat with the opposite arm and leg, making sure your lower back never arches.
Repeat five times on each leg.
5. The Bird Dog
The bird dog exercise helps coordinate your muscles on the front and the back of your trunk at the same time.
Start on your hands and knees (table position) with your core switched on and your lower back flat. Slowly slide one leg backwards, extending the knee until the leg is parallel to the floor. At the same time slide your hand forwards, lifting the arm.
As you extend the leg back and arm up, use your core muscles to keep your trunk & spine in the same position. Hold for 5 seconds. Repeat on other side, do 5 reps on each.
6. Pelvic Lift Exercise
Level 1: Start lying on back, knees bent, ankles under knees. Switch on core muscles then exhale as you lift your hips as high as you can (see pic). Hold for 5 sec, slowly lower. 10 reps.
Level 2: As above, then once you have lifted hips slowly extend one knee (see pic), hold for one breath. Slowly return leg to the ground, then pelvis to the floor. Repeat on other side. 10 reps.
Level 3: Use exercise ball to perform pelvic lift (with or without leg lifts)
7. Variety is key
Mixing it up is crucial, these are a few exercises and there are many more you can do. The most important thing is to ensure you can keep your core activated during the entire process. Once you have the basics sorted, focus on trying to keep your deepest abdominal muscles “engaged” – they are the ones you will feel when you cough.
McGill, S. M. (2003). Enhancing low-back health through stabilization exercise. ACE, 3.
Wang X-Q, Zheng J-J, Yu Z-W, Bi X, Lou S-J, Liu J, et al. (2012) A Meta-Analysis of Core Stability Exercise versus General Exercise for Chronic Low Back Pain. PLoS ONE 7(12): e52082. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0052082