Defining the term “core” in the fitness world seems to be somewhat of a difficult task. What makes up the core? Is it the abdominal muscles? The butt and hips? The middle of the back? How about the legs? Is the core your “center,” so to speak? I believe that the core is all of these and more. I like to think of the core as a stability base for all functional motion of the human body. It is an integration of the entire body working together to provide stability, as required, for motion; it is not an isolated group of muscles or a particular body region. The exact definition will most likely be argued for many years to come, and it requires the consideration of many factors and the knowledge of people with more letters behind their name than myself. I would simply like to offer some ideas and alternatives to basic gym exercises for those that wish to better train their “core” while still enhancing overall function and fitness levels.
It should be stated that I do not believe that there are “bad” exercises. I do believe that a large number of individuals perform exercises while not knowing why they are performing them. Furthermore, I believe that many individuals do not tailor exercises to meet a specific goal. What is your goal and why do you want a stronger core: Improving ability to complete daily tasks? Building larger muscles and losing body fat? Improving sport performance? Staying out of pain? All of these, and more, are excellent reasons to exercise in general, let alone put a focus on core integration. Many common exercises can be utilized and also potentially modified to have a better purpose and greater effect. I challenge you to think more specifically about the exercises you are doing; then put in a little extra intensity and go after it!
There are a few simple ways to better engage the core during an exercise as well as increase the functional carryover of an exercise. One is to perform an exercise standing up versus sitting or lying down, or at least perform the exercise in more of a weight bearing posture. This is especially important when dealing with the legs. Another is to utilize more multi-joint instead of single-joint exercises. Standing on one leg or using one arm only further engage the core. Alternating from side to side during a set is another option that has a similar effect. Finally, if you can complete exercises in multiple planes of motion, using side to side and/or rotational movement, instead of just moving in the front to back plane, this will greatly enhance the functional training effect of your workouts.
Try some of the variations to the common exercises below and see what you think. Make sure you are controlling the weights and not using too heavy of a load that causes a sacrifice of good form. If you have questions, consult a fitness professional. Please seek clearance from your physician before beginning or upgrading any fitness program.
Try swapping these common exercises in the left hand column with the more advanced alternatives in the right hand column.