What are core muscles? And 5 easy exercises to strengthen them

“You need to strengthen your core.”

It’s a phrase you may have heard from a friend, trainer or even physician at some point. But what muscles make up your core? And why exactly is core strength so important?

WellTuned talked with Benjamin Johnson, exercise specialist for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, to learn more.

What are core muscles?

“Core muscles are the muscles around your trunk and pelvis,” says Johnson, “so any muscles that are attached to the hip, pelvis and lumbar, or low back.”

What do core muscles do?

“In short? Everything!” says Johnson. “But seriously, core muscles affect every activity in your daily life, from balance to strength to posture.

“Think of it this way: If you want to build a secure home, you have to have a strong foundation. The core is that foundation for your body.”

Core muscles work together to:

  • Help you balance
  • Stabilize your body, and keep it motionless when necessary
  • Transfer energy from your upper body to your legs and vice versa
  • Support your internal organs
  • Align your spine, ribs and pelvis
  • Help you maintain a healthy posture

Whether you’re reaching for a bowl from the top shelf, swinging a baseball bat or simply walking down a hill, you’re activating your core muscles.

What can strong core muscles do?

A strong core can help:

  • Prevent joint and muscle injuries
  • Reduce back pain
  • Decrease incontinence
  • Lessen gastrointestinal problems
  • Help prevent falls, especially for older people

“Falls are the number one thing that puts older people in the hospital, and most of the time, inactivity is at least partly to blame,” says Johnson. “When people stop exercising, the first casualty is their balance.”

How do you strengthen your core muscles?

“You don’t have to do crunches and sit-ups to get a strong, stable core,” says Johnson. “People are hyperfocused on their abs because they’re visible muscles, but there are so many muscles in your core, and your rectus abdominis is only one of them!”

Crunches aren’t bad to do if you like them, says Johnson, but they aren’t part of his personal fitness plan.

“Imagine a skeleton, and picture your spine bending into that shape,” he says. “It’s not entirely natural to repeat that motion over and over again, and if you find it painful or uncomfortable, there are plenty of other exercises you can do instead, with your doctor’s approval.”

Here are 5 easy core exercises to try

1. Standing on one leg

“Standing on one leg is a great, simple way to build core strength,” says Johnson. “It works your gluteus medius, which is a muscle on the side of the leg — right where your pants pockets would be — that people often forget to exercise. But that muscle has a big effect on your balance.”

If you feel unstable when you try to stand on one leg, hold onto a chair. If you need more of a challenge, add weights or try variations on a single-leg Romanian deadlift.

2. Pallof press

“A Pallof press is a great anti-rotation exercise that can help stabilize the core,” says Johnson.

A Pallof press uses a resistance band or a cable machine at the gym, and it’s an exercise that may be easier to visualize if you watch it on video. In general, the steps are:

  • Stand and attach a handle to a cable stack at chest height.
  • Hold the handle to your chest and place your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
  • Step out to the side or straighten your arms to create tension.
  • Hold the position for 5 seconds, and return to your starting position.
  • Complete 1-3 sets of 10 reps per side.

3. Pelvic tilts

Pelvic tilts are a simple movement that you can do while watching TV that can help prevent back pain,” says Johnson.

While lying on the floor with your knees bent, flatten your back against the floor by tightening your abs and bending your pelvis up slightly. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat 10 times.

4. Clamshells

“The clamshell is great for strengthening your hips, glutes and pelvis, and it can help ease lower back tension,” says Johnson.

To do a clamshell, lie on your side on the floor with your knees bent, and slowly open and close your top leg. Complete 2-3 sets of 15 reps per side.

5. Pot stirrers

“If you have an exercise ball, a pot stirrer is a real do-it-all exercise,” says Johnson. “You’re basically doing a plank with your elbows on top of the exercise ball, and then making tiny circles with your elbows. Complete 2-3 sets of 10 reps per side. Pot stirrers are an incredible core exercise because they engage so many muscles at once.”

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.