The core muscles, which are responsible for supporting and stabilizing the spine, hips, and pelvis, form the basis for virtually every movement we make. So, including core strengthening exercises in your fitness workout is a solid step toward retaining mobility and staying pain-free throughout life. Unfortunately, the popularity of ab-only workout videos makes it easy to be tricked into believing you’re getting a total workout, when the reality is that ab workouts, while important, only make up a small portion of the core muscles.
Some of the exercises best suited for this are known as “bracing exercises.” Bracing exercises focus on the muscles along the spine, trunk, and torso, which are often difficult to work through direct means. Generally, these are done using body weight alone, held in a static position. These exercises are often augmented by introducing some degree of instability into the static position, such as standing/sitting on a bosu, pilates ball, or balance board. Some of the best bracing exercises include:
Frequently mentioned for their utility in strengthening the transverse abdominis, planks also strengthen the muscles in the thighs and buttocks. There are numerous variations on the standard plank, including supporting the upper body on the elbows, side planks, and supporting the body on a pilates ball. One of my personal favorites is to start with my feet on a workout bench, and support my body with my elbows on a pilates ball. The addition of an exercise ball for core work is common, and introduces a degree of complexity by forcing the muscles to support an unstable structure. Hold for 30-seconds and relax. Repeat 2-5 times.
Back bridges are a great way to work all the muscles in the buttocks, lower back, and hips. The simplest version of the back bridge is done by lying on your back, hands on the ground next to the hips, palms down. Knees should be bent with your feet flat on the floor. Slowly raise your hips off the floor, making a straight line between your shoulders and knees; any bowing or sagging is cheating. Hold here for 5-15 seconds; relax and repeat.
An advanced version is done as follows; once the hips are off the floor and in line with the knees, slowly lift one foot off the floor, being sure to maintain a straight line, and pull the toes back toward your head. Hold for 5-15 seconds, then slowly lower the foot to the floor and alternate with the other leg. Perform a total of 5-15 reps on each side.
Aptly named, because when performing the superman exercise, you’ll look exactly like the namesake in flight. Begin by lying facedown on the floor with hands and feet shoulder width apart. Lift the both legs/feet and both arms/hands off the floor to a height of 5-6 inches. Hold for 3-5 seconds and relax back to the starting position. Repeat 5-10 times.
An advanced version is the alternating superman, where the movement is performed by starting with the left leg and right arm. Hold for 3-5 seconds, then relax and lift the right leg and left arm.
Often times, doctors recommend bracing exercises for back pain relief, since its are a cost effective, simple way to improve practical fitness and quality of life. As can be seen, equipment for these kinds of workouts is inexpensive, and readily available, so there’s little excuse for not doing them. These are surprisingly difficult, effective movements to enhance overall strength and stability.