While working on your core strength is a key element of a well-rounded fitness routine, having core stability is something that affects you well beyond your workouts. To reap health benefits like injury prevention, less back pain, and more fluid, nimble movements in your everyday life, trainers recommend incorporating core stability exercises into your sweat regimen.
According to certified personal trainer and Pilates instructor Cheryl Russo, core stability means being able to activate and engage all the muscles of the core, AKA the ab, rectus, transverse, and oblique muscles, as well as the muscles of the back — so basically anything in the “trunk” of your body. Core stability also refers to your ability to transfer force from your upper body to your lower body and vice versa, which comes in handy as you walk, run, and go about your day, says Flexia Pilates founder and instructor Kaleen Canevari.
Working on your core stability is helpful for combatting back pain and postural issues. Since it means properly activating the proper muscles in your body’s trunk — rather than call on surrounding muscle groups to do certain movements — your spine and entire body will be more able to remain in alignment. And having proper posture results in fewer backaches. “By adding core stability exercises to your routine, you’ll protect your spine from unwanted motion,” says fitness trainer Andy Stern, noting that they’ll also improve your movement patterns and balance. “Think of it like all of the core muscles coming together to stabilize the hips, shoulders, and back of the body: A stable core is critical in balance, lifting, bending, and twisting.”
In essence, you can strengthen your core muscles with resistance training — like via planks and crunches — so that they’ll be stable when you activate them for use in functional movement during your daily routine. Without good core stability, the simplest tasks can start to feel difficult. Russo points to the example of hanging a decoration. “If you reach up and lean sideways, without the muscles all around the trunk being stable, you will fall over,” she explains.
Good core stability also helps protect your body from injury, especially when you’re exercising. Take push-ups, for example. “If your core muscles aren’t engaged and braced and stabilizing, you will dip the hips and collapse into the shoulders, causing stress on the anterior shoulders and the lower lumbar,” says Russo. To help ensure your muscles operate in a more optimal fashion, keep scrolling for intel on how to improve your core stability, straight from fitness pros.
Signs Of Poor Core Stability
One of the most obvious signs of poor core stability is bad posture. If you can’t stand up straight, it means the deeper, smaller muscles in your core are lacking and your body will try to compensate by slouching, says Stern.
You might also notice both lower back and hip pain. “There is a massive chain reaction where if those core muscles don’t fire up, your body has to call on other muscles to compensate,” Stern tells Bustle. “But unfortunately, it’s not apples to apples in terms of which muscles can do the job of another muscle, so your body winds up weaker overall. Your performance in not just exercises, but daily functions, will be affected.”
How To Improve Core Stability
To improve core stability, focus your attention on functional training, which is a form of strength training with moves that apply to everyday life, Russo says. Another way to improve core stability is by doing moves that force you to hold the space between your pelvis and ribs still as you move your arms and legs. “This can start with exercises where you lie on your back on the floor, such as toe taps or dead bugs,” Canevari says. You can then progress to exercises on your hands and knees, like bird dogs, and eventually standing exercises.
Core Stability Exercises
Do core stabilizing exercises like these three to six times a week and you should notice a major difference in your movements.
1. Dead Bugs
This functional exercise hits your transverse abdominal muscles.
- Lie on your back, lift your arms up to the ceiling.
- Lift your legs, bend knees.
- Lower right arm back behind your head.
- At the same time, extend and lower your left leg.
- Return to starting position. Repeat with the left arm and right leg.
- Keep this alternating movement going for 30 seconds.
2. Bird Dogs
Russo suggests bird dogs, which work the muscles around the spine, as well as the rectus abdominus muscles.
- Get into a tabletop position on the floor, with hands stacked directly under shoulders and knees under hips.
- Extend right arm out in front of you.
- At the same time, extend your left leg back.
- Engage your core as you pull your right elbow in towards your stomach.
- Pull your knee in and try touching your elbow to knee.
- Repeat 15 times on each side.
3. Side Planks
Canevari says side planks target your obliques, back, and core, all of which play a part in everyday moves like walking and running.
- Prop yourself up on your side, supporting your body on the lower elbow and knee.
- Push into your feet, knees, and elbow to lift your hips off of the ground.
- To advance this exercise, lift your knees off of the floor for a full side plank.
- For a further challenge, you can lift and lower the top leg.
- Hold for up to 30 seconds and lower.
- Repeat on the other side.
4. Forearm Plank + Toe Taps
Stern recommends moving onto this move after you feel comfortable with dead bugs.
- Get into a plank position, either forearm or high plank.
- Tap your right leg out to the side, bring it back in.
- Tap your left leg out to the side, bring it back in.
- Repeat 4 rounds, 30 seconds each.
5. Shoulder Taps
- From a high plank, lift left arm to tap right shoulder.
- Hold body still so it doesn’t twist.
- Set left arm back down.
- Lift right arm, tap left shoulder.
- Repeat 4 rounds, 30 seconds each.
6. Lunges + Twist
Russo suggests giving this lunge variation a try so you can fire up your lower body muscles along with your core.
- Step your right leg out in front, wide enough that when your leg bends, the right knee is over right ankle.
- Left leg bends towards floor.
- With arms at head or extended out wide, turn torso towards the right side.
- Turn back to front, straighten legs.
- Repeat 10-15 reps on both sides.
7. Standing Cable Chop
Use a machine at your gym for this move, if possible. If you don’t have access to one, Stern recommends using a dumbbell.
- Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart.
- Hold a 5 to 8-lb dumbbell in both hands at chest.
- Reach dumbbell up to left, rotate right foot in.
- Swing dumbbell on a diagonal across body, like you’re chopping down a tree.
- Repeat for 4 rounds of 30 seconds.
Akhtar, M. (2017). Effectiveness of core stabilization exercises and routine exercise therapy in management of pain in chronic non-specific low back pain: A randomized controlled clinical trial. Pak J Med Sci. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5648929/
Chun, S-P. (2015). A Study on Core Stability Training for Postural Control Ability and Respiratory Function in Patients with Chronic Stroke. International Journal of Bio-Science and Bio-Technology. DOI:10.14257/ijbsbt.2015.7.3.09
Gaffney, B. (2018). Trunk Movement Compensations and Corresponding Core Muscle Demand during Step Ambulation in People with Unilateral Transtibial Amputation. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5857238/
Huxel Bliven, K. C., & Anderson, B. E. (2013). Core stability training for injury prevention. Sports health, 5(6), 514–522. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738113481200
Cheryl Russo, certified personal trainer and Pilates instructor
Kaleen Canevari, Pilates instructor and founder of Flexia Pilates
Andy Stern, fitness trainer