The Core and Optimal Core Training


Core, core, core, you have to strengthen your core. If there is one word that has caught the fancy of the fitness industry it is the word “core”. But what is the core, why is become so important and how best do we go about exercising our core. These are important questions that need to be answered because “the core” is vitally important for our physical health. A strong core not only improves our posture, prevents back pain, improves our balance and athletic performance but for the older adult it prevents functional disability.

Definition of the Core

There are many definitions of the core but the simplest and most comprehensive is that the core encompasses the deep and superficial muscles that stabilize, align and move the trunk of the body. The primary muscles are the abdominals (deep transverse abdominus and superficial rectus abdominus) and those of the back (deep multifidus and superficial erector spinae). However, the hip flexors and spine stabizers (iliopsoas and rectus femoris), hip extensors and abductors (Gluteus maximus and medius), hip adductors (groin), hip rotators (pirifomis) and the small deep pelvic floor muscular and diaphragm are all important components and should be included when you want to exercise and strengthen the core.

The Core of the Core

It is important to emphasize that core strength goes beyond the surface muscles that we are most familiar with and exercise the most but intimately involves the deep internal muscles that maintain spinal and pelvic stability during functional movements. As a consequence, to strengthen the core, you have to perform exercises that address a lot of muscles that work differently yet in concert with each other. It won’t do to just focus on the abdominal muscles or to think in terms of isolation of muscle groups (ie.- back extensors) or brute strength. What is needed is a variety of exercises that promote core strength and integration in different ways. Exercises that challenge our stability as we bend and move and make all the core muscles work together to stabilize the spine and maintain balance and freedom of the limbs are the top choices for core exercises.

The Core Muscle Strength & Stability Test

Before you start any exercise routine it is always a good idea to have a base line evaluation of your level of fitness. This also holds true for your core. By knowing your level of core fitness you can better determine the level of difficulty that you can perform the various core exercises and monitor the development and improvements in your core strength and endurance over time.

To prepare for the assessment you will need:

  • Flat surface
  • Mat
  • Watch or clock with second counter


Conducting the Test

  1. Position the watch or clock where you can easily see it
  2. Start in the Plank Exercise Position (elbows and toes on the ground, body in a stright line and abdominals tight)
    Hold for 60 seconds
  3. Lift your right arm off the ground
    Hold for 15 seconds
  4. Return your right arm to the ground and lift the left arm off the ground
    Hold for 15 seconds
  5. Return your left arm to the ground and lift the right leg off the ground
    Hold for 15 seconds
  6. Return your right leg to the ground and lift the left leg off the ground
    Hold for 15 seconds
  7. Lift your left leg and right arm off the ground
    Hold for 15 seconds
  8. Return you left leg and right arm to the ground
  9. Lift your right leg and left arm off the ground 
    Hold for 15 seconds
  10. Return to the Plank Exercise Position (elbows on the ground)
    Hold this position for 30 seconds


Evaluation of your Performance 

  • Good Core Strength
    If you can complete the test fully, you have good core strength.
  • Poor Core Strength
    If you cannot complete the test fully, your core strength needs improvement.
    By comparing your results over time, you will note improvements or declines in core strength.


The Key to Effective Core Exercise

The key to effective core exercises is not just working the muscles but doing so with excellent form and technique. Strength is important, but equally so are stability, balance and integrative function. Small slow movements that truly engage the deep muscular of the spine and pelvis will produce excellent results. Good instruction on proper posture and alignment while performing core exercises is paramount for optimal results.



Core Exercises

The following are key core exercises that everyone should incorporate into their daily lives. Even if you don’t exercise regularly, doing these core exercises will help stabilize your spine, and improve your balance and coordination and prevent future physical dysfunction. Core exercises should be an integral part of everyone lives and exercise routine. Remember, the biggest benefit of core training is to develop functional fitness; the type of fitness that is essential to daily living.

Key points before you start:

1. Core strengthening exercises are most effective when the torso (hips, back and abdominals) works as a solid unit and both front and back muscles contract at the same time.

2. Abdominal bracing is a basic technique used during core exercise training. To correctly brace, you should attempt to pull your navel back in toward your spine. You should be able to breathe evenly while bracing. Do not hold your breath.

3. The longer you hold each exercise and the longer you take to complete each repetition, the more you get out of each exercise.

Please Note: The exercises listed below are in ascending level of difficulty

1. Static Floor Exercises

These exercises require little or no movement but do require constant tension/contraction of your core muscles to ensures that they are working. Improvement is marked by the increased duration of each exercise or the reduction of your support base.


–  All plank exercises can be done while lying on your forearms or on your hands.

–  For beginners you may do the planks (hold position) on your knees rather than on your toes.

1. Standard Plank

  •  Lie down on your stomach.
  •  Lift your body off the floor with your forearms (elbows at 90° degrees) and your toes.
  •  Keep your body in a straight position (without arching your back) and hold for 10 seconds to one minute.


2. Plank with Leg Lift

  • Start in the standard plank position.
  • Slowly raise one leg 5-8 inches off the floor
  • Count to two and slowly lower your leg to the floor.
  • Switch legs and repeat to complete one set.


3. Plank with Arm Lift

  • Start in the standard plank position.
  • Carefully shift your weight to your right forearm.
  • Extend your left arm straight out in front of you.
  • Hold 3 seconds while keeping your core tight.
  • Slowly bring your arm back to starting position.
  • Switch arms and repeat to complete one set.


4. The Bird

  • Start in the standard plank on hands position.
  • Extend your left arm and right leg
  • Hold for 5 seconds while keeping core tight
  • Slowly bring arm and leg back to starting position
  • Switch arm and leg and repeat to complete one set.


5. Side Plank

  • Begin by lying on your side on the floor.
  • Position your elbow on the floor just under your shoulder.
  • Lift up on that elbow and keep your body stiff from head to toe.
  • Hold this position for a count of 10 to 60 seconds and then lower your hip to the floor.
  • Switch sides and repeat the exercise on the other hip to complete one set.

Advanced exercise – lifting the top leg up toward the ceiling. Repeat the leg lift 5 to 10 times slowly and return to the start position.


V-sit hold

-This is an advanced cored exercise that targets your abdominal muscles and improves your balance.

  • Lie on your back and then lift up at the waist to 45 degrees and raise your arms off the mat.
  • Bend your knees or extend your legs and lift feet off the floor so you form a “V” at the waist.
  • Hold thise position for 10 to 60 sec.

2. Dynamic Floor Exercises

The following exercises are dynamic exercisesand are advanced core exercises that require controlled movement throughout the exercise.

Most of these exercises can be done on a Bosu for added difficulty.

Floor Exercises

1. Standard Abdominal Crunch

  • Lie on your back and place your feet on a wall or in a table top position so that your knees and hips are bent at 90-degree angles or the knees are bent with the feet flat on the ground
  • Tighten your abdominal muscles.
  • Slowly raise your head and shoulders blades off the floor. To avoid straining your neck, cross your arms on your chest rather than locking them behind your head.
  •  Hold for 2 seconds.
  • Slowly return to the start position and repeat.


2. Twisting Crunch

  • Assume a standard crunch position, (lying on the floor with knees bent and feet on the floor).
  • Cross one leg over the other so they are in a figure 4 position.
  • Raise your chest at a 45° angle toward the raised knee and then return to starting position.
  • Repeat until your reps are done and then repeat with other leg crossed.

Advanced Exercises –  Lift your foot off the floor while keeping your knees bent.


3. Bicycle

  • Lie on your back and lift your extended legs off the floor 8 to 12 inches.
  • Put your hands at the side of your head.
  • As you bend one knee toward the chest lift your shoulder blades off the floor and twist so the opposite elbow moves toward the bent knee.
  • Repeat with the other knee and elbow.
  • Pretend to peddle a bicycle (knees to chest) while you continue to twist
  • Make sure that the leg gets completely extended before you begin to bend the other knee.


4. Reverse Crunch

  • Lie on the floor or a mat on your back, with knees bent and hands behind head. Keep a space between your chin and chest.
  • Bend your knees to 90 degrees and lift your feet 6 inches off the floor.
  • Pull knees in toward chest and hold for 2 seconds.
  • Slowly lower legs back to starting position (feet 6 inches off the floor with knees bent).
  • Don’t use your momentum to swing your legs up. Try to keep the motion slow and controlled by your abs.

Advanced Exercise – performed with a Swiss Ball between the legs


4. Clam Shell or Double Crunch

  • Lie on your back and keep your feet just off the ground, knees bent or extended.
  • Make sure your lower back stays planted and your abs are tight. Place your hands lightly behind your ears in a crunch position.
  • Slowly and simultaneously lift your shoulders off the ground and your knees into your chest to perform a double crunch.
  • Slowly return to start position to complete one rep.
  • Don’t let momentum swing your knees up for you. Be sure your hands are not lifting your upper body– concentrate on using abs.

Advanced Exercise– Performed with a stability or swiss ball between your legs at your ankles


5. Lying Straight Leg Raise (Click on the picture for animation)

  • Lie on your back.
  •  Keep lower back in contact with the floor, feet and legs straight and together.
  • Place your hands to sides or under lower back for support.
  • Lift legs upward until they are straight above hips while keeping your legs straight and together and the lower back flat. Hold for 2 seconds.
  • Lower your legs down to starting position slowly and with control (but do not allow feet to touch the ground between reps) to complete one rep.
  • Make sure back stays flat on floor and abs are tight.

Advanced Exercise – Perform with a Swiss ball between your legs


6. Lying windmills (Pendulum)

  • Lie on your back with your arms extended to the sides and raise your extended legs until they are perpendicular to the floor.
  • Slowly lower your legs to the side as low as you can while maintaining complete shoulder and upper back contact with the floor.
  • Bring your legs back up to centre and lower them to the other side to complete one set.

Advanced Exercise – Performed with a Swiss Ball between your legs.


7. Plank Crunch

  • Start in the standard plank position on your hands and toes.
  • Bend one knee to your chest and then return to the plank position.
  • Repeat with the other knee to complete one rep.

Advanced– bend the knee to the opposite chest so you work the obliques.


8. Back Extensions

  • Lie face down, legs together and extended straight, arms bent with hands behind neck, head and neck in a neutral position.
  • Slowly lift the upper body (shoulders and chest) off of the ground.
  •  Hold for 5 seconds at highest position.
  • Slowly lower with control to start position to complete one rep.
  • Repeat 5 times and progress to 10 rep or more
  • This is a very small movement– don’t move further than you can naturally and easily. Keep legs squeezed together, hips, legs and toes remain on the floor.

Advanced Exercise – perform on a Swiss Ball


9. Superman

  • Lie face down, legs together and extended straight and arms extended to the front
  • Slowly lift the upper and lower body (shoulders, chest and legs ) off of the ground.
  •  Hold for 5 seconds at highest position.
  • Slowly lower with control to start position to complete one rep.
  • Repeat 5 times and progress to 10 rep or more
  • This is a very small movement– don’t move further than you can naturally and easily. Keep legs squeezed together, hips on floor.


10. The Bridge

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent (A)
  • Avoid tilting your hips and tighten your abdominal muscles.
  • Raise your hips off the floor until your hips are aligned with your knees and shoulders (B).
  • Hold for 5 seconds and breathe normally.
  • Return to the start position and repeat.



11. Abdominal Roll Out with Wheel

  • Kneel on a mat with your knees hip width apart, hands grasping the ab wheel handles, arms directly beneath your shoulders (A).
  •  Keep your back flat and your abs engaged (belly button pulled up and in away from the floor).
  • Slowly roll the wheel straight in front of you as you lower your hips toward the ground so that your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees (B).
  • Slowly, using your abdominals, slowly roll the wheel back in until you reach the starting position to complete one rep.
  •  Only roll as far forward as you can while still maintaining good form. Do not allow the hips to drop toward the floor or the lower back to arch.


12. Side lying Hip Dips

  • From a side lying position lift up onto your elbow so you are in a side lying plank position.
  • Lower your hip to just above the floor and then return to plank position.
  • Start with 5 or 10 and then turn to the other side and repeat to complete 1 set.


13. Side Lying lateral Raise

  • Lye on your side with legs extended. Your feet may be in front of each other or on top of each other (advanced)
  • Lower arm extended under the head or elbows bent with finger tips touching your ears. The head is lifted just off the extended arm.
  • Top arm is extended along the top of the body or elbow bent with finger tips touching your ear.
  • Slowly lift the lower shoulder off the floor and hold for 1 sec.
  • It is important to keep the same distance between the head and lower arm. The movement starts from the lower shoulder lifting up not the head jerking up.
  • This is a very small movement.

Advanced Exercise – Do the same movement on a Swiss ball or Bosu. The movement will be larger.


14. Side Lying Plank Crunch

  • Lie in the side plank position while keeping your top hand near your head.
  • Bring your elbow down to the floor by twisting your torso.
  • Return to the starting position to complete the rep and repeat 5 or more times to complete the set and then repeat on the other side.



15. Side Lying Double Crunch

  • Lie in the side plank position while keeping your top hand near your head.
  • Bend your bottom knee toward your head as you twist and move your top elbow toward the bending knee

3. Dynamic Standing Exercises

1. Side Bending

  • Stand with legs hip width apart, knees slightly bent
  • Holding ends of a rolled-up towel, extend arms overhead in a V formation or hands on your hips.
  • Bend to the left without moving your lower body. If your hands where on your hips lift the right arm over your head as you bend to the left and hold for 2 seconds.
  • Return to start position.
  • Bend to opposite side to complete one rep.
  • Concentrate on bending from the waist, and letting your upper body/arms follow.


2. Airplane

  • Stand with feet together, arms at sides, and gaze at a spot on the ground about 5 feet ahead for balance.
  • Lift left foot back, bending forward until left leg and chest are parallel to ground. Extend arms out to the side for balance.
  • Hold for 3 to 5 seconds.
  • Switch sides and repeat
  • Be sure to keep a flat back (parallel to floor) and concentrate on keeping abs tight.



3. Standing Hip Flexor

  • Stand with feet slightly apart, toes forward, hands on hips or one hand on a wall/chair for support.
  •  Shift weight to right leg, keeping knee slightly bent and spine straight.
  •  Slowly lift the left leg, keeping it bent at 90 degrees. Lift knee as high as possible, trying to get thigh parallel to floor or higher. Hold here for 2 counts.
  • Slowly lower leg to ground without letting foot rest on the floor. Complete all reps with one leg and then switch sides.
  • Make sure you aren’t leaning back when lifting leg.
  • If necessary you may use a chair or wall for balance.

Advanced Exerciseas you lift the leg you can extend the knee.


4. Static Swiss Ball Exercises

These are advanced core exercises because a Swiss ball is unstable, so the main muscles you are working will need the help of supporting muscles to balance you on the ball.

The Swiss Ball should be medium-sized that is fully inflated, but still allows for some give.


1. Plank on a Swiss ball

This is a variation of the static plank.

  • Place your forearms on the Swiss Ball with your feet on the ground
  • Keep your abs and glutes tight, and do not arch your back.
  • Hold this position for 10 to 60 seconds.

Advanced Exercise – Move the ball slightly from side to side.


2. Side Lying Plank on Swiss Ball

  • Place your left forearms on the Swiss Ball with your feet on the ground. The feet  maybe in front of one another for better balance or on top of one another (advanced).
  • Keep your abs and glutes tight, and do not dip your hips.
  • Hold this position for 10 to 60 seconds.

Advanced Exercise – Move the ball slightly foreword and back


3. Lying Glutel Push-up or Bridge

  •  Lie on your back with your feet resting on top of a Swiss ball.
  •  Push through your heels to raise your butt off the floor as high as possible.
  •  Form a straight line from your knees to your shoulders.
  • Hold this position for 10 to 60 seconds.


5. Dynamic Swiss Ball Exercises

1. Abdominal Crunch on Swiss Ball

  • Begin by sitting on top of the Swiss ball.
  • Roll in the direction your head is pointed until your lower back is supported by the curve of the ball.
  • Either cross your arms over your chest or place your hands behind your ears. Do not put them behind the head or clasp them together behind your head.
  • Slowly crunch forward, using your abdominals, until you are at approximately a 45 degree angle to the ball. Keep you neck in a neutral position.
  • Slowly lower yourself back to the starting position, where your head wraps back around the ball.
  • Keep a  space in-between your chin and chest, so your spine stays in a neutral position.


2. The Bird on Swiss Ball

  • Begin in a kneeling position with the ball under your abdomen.
  • Walk you hands out until they touch the ground right under your shoulders and your toes are also touching the ground. Allow your weight to press into the ball.
  • Slowly raise your right arm and left leg up into the air, balancing on the other hand and leg that are touching the ground. Lift as high as you can, until both leg and arm are parallel to the floor.
  • Hold for 1 to 5 seconds and then slowly return to start.
  •  Repeat with the opposite sides to complete one rep. Keep your head and neck in a neutral position.
  • Make it easier: Work your way up to this exercise by practising in the same position but lifting only one limb at a time.


3. Ball roll-ins (Reverse Crunch)

  •  Place your hands on the ground and the top of your feet on top of the ball.
  •  Keep your hands in place and bend at the knees to bring the ball toward your chest.
  •  Hold this position for a second and roll back out.
  •  Do not use your hip flexors to bring the ball toward you bend your knees.


4. Stiff-Legged V bends

  • This is exactly the same as the ball roll-ins, but you must keep your knees straight and move your hips toward the ceiling.


Very Advanced Core Exercise

Dragon Fly (Leg, hip and spinal lift)

This move has a high degree of difficulty and has a high risk of injury if performed incorrectly, or by those without appropriate strength and poor technique.

  • Lye on a flat bench or floor.
  • You must lock your arms in a fixed overhead position by either lifting your arms over your head and grabbing the head of the bench or your hands next to your head and gripping the sides of the bench, or if you are lying on the floor you can grip a stable object behind your head or over your head.
  • Contract your torso (brace your abdominals) and lift your legs, hips and spine up into the air as high as you can. Ideally, they should be lifted so they are pointing perpendicular to the bench or floor. It is important to keep your toes pointed, and your knees and hips straight and spine and body rigid. (Key pt.- Keep toes pointed and avoid bending the knees and hips).
  • Once lifted, you will slowly lower your legs, hips and spine in a controlled motion without letting any part of your body touch the bench other than the upper back and shoulder.
  • If you bend your knees, drop your hips, or arch your back, you don’t have the strength yet, and should not continue the exercise.
  • Lower your body until it is hovering just over the bench or floor.
  • Repeat as possible. Once you break form, you are done.



Core strengthening needs to be part of everyone’s exercise routine. A strong core enhances your ability to perform better in athletic events and in activities of daily living, especially activities that require lifting and an increased amount of physical exertion. It is also important in injury prevention, especially injuries to the lower back. As well, a strong core will improve your posture which helps with your balance and agility which is important for fall prevention and will enhance your self esteem, both of which are important for the older adult.

The exercises illustrated in this article are only a small sample of the types and variety of core exercises available. It should be emphasized that you must perform core exercises with good biomechanics or risk compromising the effectiveness of the exercise and increase the risk of injury. Only your imagination can limit the variety of core exercises you can do to strengthen the various core muscles but if you progress too quickly without developing a proper base of core strength you risk injury and functional disability.

Remember, “Success is in the Doing”, so don’t delay. Get started on strengthening your “core” today. In the months and years ahead you will be very thankful that you did.

If you’d like more info please contact Mike.

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