Abs exercises aren’t enough. Here’s what really helps build a strong, stable foundation for your whole body.
Your core is, quite literally, the core of everything you do.
Whether you’re playing with your grandkids, climbing the stairs, or shopping for groceries, your core is at work—keeping you upright, stabilizing your body, and helping to power your arms and legs, says Michael Silverman, P.T., director of rehabilitation and wellness at Northern Westchester Hospital in New York. It even helps regulate breathing and bladder function.
Unfortunately, the natural decline in muscle mass and strength that occurs with aging isn’t limited to your arms and legs. It also affects the core, raising your risk for poor mobility, aches and pains, and even incontinence issues, he says.
Simply put: You want to engage and strengthen your core at every opportunity, whether you’re at the gym, at home, or out and about with everyday tasks.
Here, experts explain the best ways to keep your core in top shape.
1. Prioritize Total-Body Standing Exercises
“Since the core is designed to act primarily as a stabilizer and force-transfer center, total-body strength exercises actually work the core in the way that it was designed to function,” explains Leython Williams, D.P.T., a physical therapist and facility manager at Athletico Physical Therapy in Lincolnshire, Illinois.
In fact, according to a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, total-body strength moves like squats train the core to a greater degree than some core-centric exercises, like the superman and side bridge. Plus, total-body movements burn major calories while improving overall strength and function.
A terrific total-body move: squats. Core training aside, the squat is the most important exercise we can do. Find out why—and the best way to do them for your body—in our beginner’s guide to the squat.
Standing exercises using a resistance band, like the chest punch and row, also strengthen the core. Check out the video below and this total-body resistance workout.
2. Incorporate Single-Sided Moves
Your core is your balance center. Whenever you’re standing on one foot—or simply carrying a bag or purse on one side of your body—your core is what keeps you from tipping over. And according to research in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, exercising one side of your body at a time engages your core better than performing two-sided moves.
Lunges, split squats, and even alternating biceps curls can help build functional core strength and balance, but arguably the greatest single-sided core strengthener out there is the suitcase carry.
Here’s how to do it: Hold a weight in one hand down by your side and walk, keeping your shoulders square and upright—no leaning! Walk with the weight at your side for five to 10 feet, then put it down, pick it up with your other hand, and walk back. Repeat two to three times. Plus, check out more ways to do the carry exercise.
3. Practice Deep Breathing
Your core muscles play an important role in your lung function. And if you don’t want to lose it, you better use it! To actively engage your core muscles with every breath, practice what experts call diaphragmatic or belly breathing, Silverman says.
Here’s how to do it: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor or a comfortable surface. Place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. From here, take a deep inhale through your nose, letting your belly fill with air. You should feel the hand on your stomach rise, but the hand on your chest should stay still. Once you can’t inhale anymore, squeeze your core muscles to gently force all of the air out through your mouth. You should feel the hand on your stomach drop and your belly tighten.
Try to perform this exercise for one minute twice per day. As you get comfortable, try doing it in a seated or standing position. Ideally, you should breathe this way 24/7. And the more you practice, the easier and more automatic it will become. Great news: Not only will deep breathing strengthen your core and lungs, you’ll also tame stress.
Plus, check out more breathing exercises.
4. Pay Attention to Your Posture
Posture and core strength are the perfect pair. Work on one, and you’ll automatically improve the other. After all, many of the muscles that make up your core—including the transverse abdominis and erector spinae muscles—are in charge of keeping your spine stable, supported, and in correct alignment, says Tiffany Chag, C.S.C.S., a strength coach at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
“Check in with yourself throughout the day, whether you’re standing, walking, or sitting, and ask yourself, ‘How’s my posture?’” Chag says. “Tap your belly. Is it tight and working?” If not, that’s your cue to stop slouching.
Consider setting an alarm on your phone or posting a note on the bathroom mirror to remind yourself to check in on your posture. Another smart move: Follow this four-step plan to get your posture back on track.
5. Trade Crunches for Core Stabilization Exercises
It’s no mistake that dedicated core exercises are the final item on this list. They’re helpful, but they’re not the most important thing for building core strength. “Most older adults should perform core isolation exercise two to three times per week,” Silverman says. He adds that at 60 or older, the best core exercises will likely be different from those that were right for you at 20.
It’s best for older adults to opt out of situps and crunches—which can exacerbate any existing issues in the lower back—in favor of stabilization exercises such as plank, side plank, bird dog, or bridge, Silverman says. The great news is you have exercise options on the floor or in a chair.
If you’re comfortable getting down on the floor, grab a mat, and try these core exercises that can relieve back pain.
If you want a seated option, try this 10-minute chair workout for your core.
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