Core Exercises: 6 workouts to tighten your abs, strengthen your back, and improve balance
Want to bring more power to athletic pursuits like running, swimming, golf, and tennis? Ward off or ease lower back pain? Build up your balance and stability so that you're less likely to fall? Do you dream of running a marathon, or flashing washboard abs at the beach? Or are you simply hoping to make everyday acts like bending, turning, and reaching easier so that housework, fix-it projects, and gardening stay on your agenda? A strong, flexible core underpins all these goals.
This Special Health Report was prepared by the editors of Harvard Health Publications in consultation with Faculty Editor Edward M. Phillips, M.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Harvard Medical School and Director and Founder, Institute of Lifestyle Medicine, as well as Master Trainers and Fitness Consultants Josie Gardiner and Joy Prouty. 49 pages. (2011)
Posture, alignment, and angles: Striking the right pose
Posture counts a lot when you're exercising. Aligning your body properly is the key to good form, which nets you greater gains and fewer injuries. In fact, good posture helps anytime you're moving. If one foot is always turned slightly inward, for example, it impedes power whether you're walking, going upstairs, jogging, or playing sports. Worse, it paves the way for injuries to the ankle, knee, hip, and beyond, since the effects of this physical quirk can zigzag its way up your body.
Similarly, sitting up straight and comfortably aligned in a chair can make desk work feel less tiresome. Hours of computer and desk work tend to make your shoulders hunch and your head and neck jut forward uncomfortably.
Committing to core work will do much to improve your posture whether you're sitting, standing, or moving. A balance of core exercises, such as those selected for our workouts, is best. If you only pour your efforts into strengthening abs, your back muscles will grow weaker by comparison. Instead of standing up straight, your body will curve forward. Likewise, posture is thrown out of kilter when muscles lose flexibility, becoming tighter and eventually shortening so that your range of motion is increasingly limited. Among other problems, this can cause back pain.
Our workouts are designed to build strength and flexibility in all your major core muscles. Doing any of our full workouts, or the four great moves in our short workouts can help you avoid such problems.
Quick posture checks before and during exercise can also help you avoid injury and squeeze the most benefit from your workout. If possible, look in a mirror when exercising. Try to take a few moments each day to practice better posture, too.
When exercise instructions in our workouts ask you to stand up straight, that means
Whether you're standing or seated, neutral posture requires you to keep your chin parallel to the floor; your shoulders, hips, and knees at even heights; and your knees and feet pointing straight ahead. A neutral spine takes into account the slight natural curves of the spine -- it's not flexed or arched to overemphasize the curve of the lower back. One way to find neutral is to tip your pelvis forward as far as is comfortable, then tip it backward as far as is comfortable. The spot approximately in the middle should be neutral. If you're not used to standing or sitting up straight, it may take a while for this to feel natural.
A neutral wrist is firm and straight, not bent upward or downward. And neutral alignment means keeping your body in a straight line from head to toe except for the slight natural curves of the spine.
Get the angle
When angles appear in exercise instructions, try visualizing a 90-degree angle as an L or two adjacent sides of a square. To visualize a 30-degree angle, mentally slice the 90-degree angle into thirds, or picture the distance between the minute hand and hour hand of a clock at one o'clock.