Despite its often inappropriate use, the word "core" sells exercise gizmos and workouts. Core, in its true meaning, refers to your deepest layer of abdominal muscles, but many people use it to describe the entire ab region. Finding the best core routine therefore depends on what you define as your core, but whatever your definition, when choosing your workouts, steer clear of glossy informercials and adhere to the wisdom of respected fitness industry professionals.
The Inner and Outer Units
Fitness industry guru Paul Chek coined the term "inner unit" to describe the deeper layer of abdominal muscles, which includes the transversus abdominis, the multifidus and the pelvic floor. These muscles claim spinal stability as their primary function. The rectus abdominis and the internal and external obliques form the primary muscles of the outer abdominal unit, which flexes and rotates the spine. In an effective core routine, the inner and outer units work together. The use of specific breathing methods in Pilates exercises exemplifies this concept. When you exhale, your transversus abdominis muscle presses against your diaphragm to expel the air. Exhaling during an abdominal crunch thus creates a deeper ab contraction. Put Pilates on your list of best core workouts.
ACE With a Side of Mayo
Both the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the Mayo Clinic feature a series of core exercises that include stabilizing and mobilizing movements. These exercises suit beginners, or anyone wishing to get acquainted with her deep core muscles. The ACE website features exercises such as the cat and camel and the supine pelvic tilt, which teach you how to use your core in conjunction with spinal movement, and exercises such as the bird dog, which teach you how to use your core to maintain balance. The Mayo Clinic website has some abdominal exercises that don't require you to lift your head from the floor, thereby eliminating the stiff neck associated with traditional crunches.
The Professor's Core Workout
Dr. Michele Olson, professor of exercise science at Auburn University in Alabama, tested a series of core exercises and came up with five that she considers best for women. She chose two Pilates exercises -- the hundred and the double leg stretch -- for their ability to engage the lower fibers of the abdominal region and the obliques. The yoga, which requires you to balance on your tail bone, was chosen for similar reasons. Olson also likes the side plank, because it requires the deep core muscles to prevent the spine from rounding. The stability ball roll-out, performed from a kneeling position, also demands that you use your deep abdominal muscles in order to maintain posture.
Walking the Plank
If an ab exercise is too easy, adding more repetitions is like staying in first grade forever, warns ACE trainer Jonathan Ross, author of "Abs Revealed." Instead, move to the next level. True to his word, Ross created an innovative, advanced core series that includes your inner unit stabilizers and outer unit mobilizers. The first exercise begins in the plank position, and progresses to walking planks in different directions. Next, Ross assumes a plank position with his upper body on the ball, and performs a series of lateral and rotational torso movements. Golfers, tennis players and anyone involved in rotational sports should get on this workout right now. In addition to his plank variations, Ross features some killer stability ball crunch and medicine ball variations. By changing the arm position in these exercises, you lengthen the levers and add more challenge to the workout.
- Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images