Plus, four exercises to build the strength you need to stay mobile, independent, and pain-free.
A weak core impacts everyday life more than you think. Even basic functional movements—like getting out of bed or walking to the car—start to feel challenging, if not impossible.
In other words, if you want to stay mobile and independent, you can’t ignore your core. And no, crunches won’t cut it.
Your core includes much more than your abs, says Michelle Barnett, D.P.T., a physical therapist with TRIA Orthopaedic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota.
It also includes the gluteal muscles (in the butt and hips), lats and traps (in the middle and upper back), and the multifidus and erector spinae muscles (around your spine). All these muscles, not your abs, are primarily responsible for keeping you upright and stable.
This is why poor balance is one of the more obvious signs your core is weak. What about the less obvious signs? Here are four to watch for—and what to do if you notice them.
Sign #1: You Rely on Your Arms to Get Out of a Chair or Bed
Try this 20-second fitness test: Sit down in your favorite chair, and get comfortable. Now stand up. Did you use your hands to help push yourself up? If so, it might mean your core strength is lacking.
“It takes a lot of abdominal strength, not only to sit up but to push yourself and roll onto your side,” Barnett says.
To transition from lying or sitting to standing, your abdominals and deep core muscles have to be able to brace, while your glutes have to be strong enough to propel you to your feet, she explains.
If you find you regularly rely on the strength of your hands and arms to push yourself out of your chair or bed, it’s time to add core-bracing and glute-strengthening exercises, like the ones below, to your fitness routine.
Sign #2: Your Lower Back Arches While Standing or Walking
Have you ever caught yourself (or noticed someone else) standing or walking with your lower back arched and pelvis jutting forward? That’s your body’s way of telling you something’s off.
“Standing or walking with an overarched back could signal a couple of weaknesses,” says Brian Schwabe, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a sports physical therapist. “First, your core lacks the stability and control to keep your spine in a good, neutral position, while tight hip flexors pull your pelvis forward.”
If your core is weak, your body compensates so other muscles will help hold you up, Schwabe says. Not surprisingly, this overarched position can lead to pain in your low back over time—which is why low back pain is another sign of a weak core.
Sign #3: You Sway as You Walk
Tilting or swaying side to side while walking is a telltale sign you’ve lost some core strength and stability, especially lateral (side) trunk stability, Schwabe says.
“Your core is supposed to resist against other movements and stabilize so your shoulders and hips can move around it,” he says. If your core muscles—in particular, your obliques, which run along the sides of your torso—aren’t strong enough to control your torso while walking, your pelvis ends up dropping side to side, resulting in a slight rocking motion.
Your walking pattern can reveal more than just weak core muscles. Check out our guide to what your gait says about how you’re aging.
Sign #4: You Hold Your Breath During Core Exercises
Your diaphragm—a large muscle between your chest and digestive organs—works closely with surrounding deep core muscles to control movement and breath. If you find yourself holding your breath during core exercises, like the ones below, you may lack the strength to control core function and breath simultaneously, Schwabe says.
As a result, you end up focusing on one task at a time—and it’s usually not breathing.
Why is that bad? “Holding your breath increases the abdominal pressure, and while that makes you feel like you’re more stable, you’re not actually engaging those abdominal muscles to create that stability,” Barnett says.
Do These 4 Essential Exercises to Strengthen Your Core
If you notice any of the signs above, or simply want to prevent them, try adding these exercises into your weekly routine. Perform one set of each exercise in order, resting 30 to 60 seconds between sets. For best results, do the full workout three days per week or more if you feel up to it.
Remember to stay active in other ways as well, like going for a walk or taking a SilverSneakers class. “Staying active in general is important because you’re going to be using all those core muscles when you do other activities,” Barnett says.
Exercise #1: Pelvic Tilt
Do 10 to 15 reps
Lying on your back, bend both knees and place feet flat on the floor hip-width apart. Flatten your lower back against the floor by tightening your abdominal muscles and bending your pelvis up slightly. Hold this position for five seconds, then release. That’s one rep. Perform 10 to 15 reps total.
Exercise #2: Bridge
Do 10 to 15 reps
Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor about hip-width apart, and heels a few inches away from your buttocks. Press your arms into the floor for support, and brace your core.
From here, squeeze your glutes to lift your hips up until your body forms a straight line from your knees to shoulders. Pause, then slowly lower your hips to return to starting position. That’s one rep. Do 10 to 15 reps total.
Exercise #3: Bodyweight Squat
Do 10 to 15 reps
Stand tall with your back facing a sturdy chair, feet hip-width apart and arms straight out in front of you for balance.
From here, push your hips back and bend your knees to lower until you touch the seat of the chair, keeping your chest lifted the entire time. As soon as you touch the seat, push through your heels to return to standing. That’s one rep. Do 10 to 15 reps total.
If you need to sit down at the bottom of the movement, feel free to do so, but try to stand back up without using your arms for help. Learn how to make the squat easier (or harder) for your needs in this guide.
Exercise #4: Clamshell
Do 10 to 15 reps per side
Lie on one side with your legs stacked and knees bent at a 45-degree angle.
From here, keeping your hips steady and your top foot down, lift only your top knee as high as you comfortably can. Your legs should mimic a clam opening. Pause, then slowly lower your knee to return to starting position. That’s one rep. Complete all reps, and then repeat on the opposite side.
Note: The exercises in this workout may be different or more advanced than those you’ll experience in a SilverSneakers class. Please consult your physician before beginning a physical activity program to make sure it’s safe for you.