Whether you're a novice taking the first steps toward fitness or a committed fitness fanatic hoping to optimise your results, a well-rounded fitness program is the best way to reach your fitness goals. This includes working on your core stabilising muscles, more simply known as your core. Aside from occasional sit-ups and push-ups, however, core exercises are often neglected.
Your body's core is a group of muscles that play a stabilising and supporting role around your spine, abdomen and pelvic region. There are many core muscles of different shapes and sizes helping to protect these areas from pain and injury. The stabilising role of this inner layer of core muscles provides the foundation for other outer layer muscles to provide the power and control required for many movements in your body. The core muscles help you to control your posture and allow you to move your body in a safe and efficient way.
Core exercises can be an important part of a well-rounded fitness program. Core exercises help build core stability, the ability to control the position and movement of the core muscles in your neck, shoulders, trunk, pelvis and hips. Core exercises differ from other muscle exercise as the focus is to try and “switch on” and hold with these core muscles.
When you have good core stability, the muscles in your pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen provide support to your spine for when you’re stationary and when you’re engaged in activity. This helps reduce the strain placed on your spine through the day. This is especially important for office workers and others who maintain a position for long amounts of time.
A strong core also helps keep optimal body alignment when you’re physically active and this in turn can help reduce the strain on your body and spine in the long run. As weak core muscles leave you susceptible to poor posture, lower back pain and muscle injuries, core exercises not only help improve your sporting performance but they may also help to prevent muscle and joint-related injuries and pain.
On the aesthetic side of things, developing a strong core can help provide a safe foundation for more advanced strength exercises focused on developing defined abdominal, back and shoulder blade muscles. Trying to develop these muscles without a strong core is a common training error that can lead to poor results and potentially bone and joint problems such as back pain.
The muscle most targeted in core exercises is your Transversus abdominis (TA), which is like a belt of muscle wrapping around your abdomen. When you cough this is the muscle you can feel contracting. Another important muscle group are the small Multifidus muscles along the back of your spine which help hold your spine upright.
In association with these muscles are a multitude of other muscles that play a stabilising role around the trunk and spine, including Erector spinae (along the back) and the oblique muscles around the abdomen.
An important group of muscles commonly used in core stability exercises are your pelvic floor muscles. These muscles run from your pubic bone at the front to the base of your spine at the back and work like a hammock that can be tightened from each end, lifting up as it does so. These muscles are important in preventing and managing incontinence (reduced control of urination), especially after childbirth. You can feel your pelvic floor muscles working if you try to stop the flow of urine when you go to the toilet.
You can do core exercises on a carpeted floor or mat. Make sure you are on a firm, non-slippery surface and that you have enough room to carry out the exercises comfortably and safely. Warm up the major muscles you’ll be using before you start. This increases circulation to the muscles and may help prevent injury.
Whether you are lying, standing, sitting or in kneeling on all fours, when doing core stability exercises it’s best to start by working with your spine in a neutral position. To find your neutral position, first tilt your pelvis forward as far as comfortable (bring your belly button forward, letting your belly stick out) and then back as far as comfortable (tucking your belly button in, flattening the arch of your spine). Approximately halfway between these two points is your neutral position. This is the position that should feel most natural and relaxed for your pelvis and spine.
First engage the Transversus abdominis by visualising pulling your belly button in and up toward the centre of your spine. Keep this contraction light enough that breathing is still fluent and easy to do. By keeping your Transversus abdominis engaged during your workout you'll gain the most benefit from core exercises.
Remember, if you feel any pain when doing any of the exercises, stop immediately.
If you’re pregnant, or if you have back, neck, shoulder or spine problems, or any other health concerns, talk to your doctor, physiotherapist or other sports health professional before starting a new core exercises program.
Mayo Clinic: Exercises to improve your core strength
Akuthota V Ferreiro A Moore T Fredericson M. Core stability exercise principles. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2008; 7:39.
Hall D. Overcoming pain. From pain sufferer to healthy, capable and in control. Lulu press, 2008.
Willardson JM. Core stability training: Applications to sports conditioning programs. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2007; 21:979.
Last published: 31 August 2012
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