Core Work: 5 Moves to Build Strength from Your Center

 

Melissa Thomas NASM-CPT, CES, PES; STOTT PILATES® Certified Instructor; Pn1

 

As a personal trainer and a Pilates instructor, I’m routinely asked about the best way to build a strong core. But what exactly is “the core?”


Think of your core as all of the muscles that connect to your spine—and not just the muscles you can see. Below I’ve described some exercises I teach my clients that work this more “global” musculature. These movements are designed to help you build core strength and stability, which is super important for overall health. 


Breathing


Yes—you read that correctly! Breathing is a core exercise, but we often don’t spend any time focusing on our breath or working to fully inhale and exhale. 


Try this: On your next inhale and exhale, feel where you’re breathing into your body. I’m willing to bet that you felt yourself breathe in the front of your chest or maybe in your belly, right? Instead of only breathing into the front of the body, we emphasize the use of a three-dimensional breath in Pilates. Your lungs expand three-dimensionally underneath your ribs, right? Let’s take advantage of that! 

Your diaphragm is an umbrella-shaped muscle that sits at the bottom of your rib cage. To feel it working, hold the bottom of your rib cage with both hands. As you inhale, focus on expanding your ribs out to the sides like you’re opening an umbrella. As you exhale, imagine that you’re closing the umbrella while narrowing your waist below your belly button. Breathing this way has the added benefit of accessing your parasympathetic nervous system, so you’ll actively be calming yourself down while doing core work. A win-win in my book!


Dead Bug with Stability Ball

The Dead Bug is one of my favorite core stabilization exercises. We tend to overemphasize the movement of the spine when performing traditional core work (crunches, bicycles, Russian twists, etc.), but it’s really important to learn how to stabilize the core against rotation. 


Try this: Lie on your back with your hands pointed at the ceiling and your knees bent in a tabletop position. Secure a stability ball between your hands and knees. To stabilize the ball, imagine that you’re scooping your belly button up and under your rib cage without jamming your lower back into the ground or over-engaging the muscles in your neck. It takes a lot of support to hold the ball in place, right?! 

Start with stabilizing the ball for up to 30 seconds. Once you have worked up to 30-second holds, you can add some movement of the limbs. First, experiment with moving one limb at a time. Can you reach your left arm overhead without losing control of the ball? How about your left leg? After you can accomplish this, work to coordinate reaching the opposite arm and opposite leg at the same time—talk about a challenge! 


Glute Bridge


The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in your body, but training it can be challenging—especially if you sit most of the day. Sometimes, the mind-muscle connection to our glutes isn’t there, and sitting for extended periods doesn’t help. The glute bridge is a fantastic core exercise because when performed correctly, it requires abdominal stability while working the gluteal muscles (i.e., gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus).


Try this: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Keeping your belly button scooped, press your hips up toward the ceiling. You know that you have your feet in the correct position if your shins are vertical at the top of the movement. If your feet are too far away from your bum, you’ll feel your hamstrings working more than your glutes—scoot them closer! In contrast, if your feet are too close, you’ll feel your quads working more than your glutes—scoot your feet further away!


Pallof Press


The Pallof press is named for its creator, physical therapist John Pallof. The standard version of this exercise is performed by standing perpendicular to a cable or a resistance band at sternum height. 


Try this: Attach a resistance band to a stable base or set a cable at the height of your sternum. Turn sideways so the cable is on one side of your body and stand with your feet hip-width apart in a quarter squat. Hold the cable at your sternum with both hands, brace to stabilize your core, then press the cable straight forward. The weight on the cable will try to pull you to the side toward the stable base, so you’ll be forced to use your obliques and lats to resist the temptation to rotate your trunk. Make sure you do both sides—you’ll likely find that one side is easier than the other. If there’s a big discrepancy from one side to the other, start and end on your weaker side to help improve your imbalances. 


Farmer Carry


You know how the side mirrors on your car say, “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear”? I feel like the farmer carry should come with the warning, “This exercise is more difficult than it appears”. 


Try this: The concept is pretty simple: pick up something relatively heavy in each hand and walk forward. That said, many different things are happening in your body to execute this movement correctly. Because the load you are holding is pretty heavy, your body will naturally try to compensate by rotating, but you should work to stabilize your torso against rotation. I coach my clients to pull the belly button up under the rib cage and try to stay as tall as possible while performing this exercise without shrugging their shoulders. It’s also important to use the glutes to fully extend the hips as you press through the legs. 

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