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Flexibility, stability, good posture, and strength are essential for everyday movements and activities and should be a part of any well-rounded workout program. Yet while crunches may be all the rage, there are exercises that are much better for your core and safer for your back. Protecting your back while working and strengthening your core should always be a priority.
Your core is comprised of a number of different muscles in your torso, including those that attach to your spine, your lower back muscles, muscles in your pelvis, your abdominal muscles, your back muscles, and even your hips. These muscles all work together and play off of each other to help you move, bend, and twist. They also help your body remain stable and upright, all while forming a protective sheath around your vulnerable internal organs.
It’s not enough to just work your abs if you want a strong core and a strong back. It’s essential you work your core from all angles and include a number of varied exercises, including exercises that help strengthen your back muscles, obliques, glutes, pelvis, and hips. Luckily, many core exercises are multi-taskers and help strengthen multiple areas in your core simultaneously.
When working your core, you’ll want to ensure you work to strengthen your core from all sides.
1. Supermans—these are a great exercise for your lower back. Start by lying face down on a mat. Bring your arms straight out to your sides and then forward so your arms are on either side of your head. Your legs should be stretched out straight with 6 to 12 inches between your feet. Lift your arms and legs at the same time by squeezing your back and gluteus muscles. Hold this “flying” position for a count of ten. Release and repeat.
2. Plank—possibly the best exercise you can do to safely strengthen your core, this is an exercise that seems simple yet is highly effective and should be included in any core exercise program. Planks strengthen all the muscles in your core and assist with proper posture. Start on your hands and knees. Lower your upper body down onto your forearms, and straighten your knees until your legs are straight and you’re on your toes. Hold this position for 30 seconds at a time before returning to the start. Repeat five times.
5. Woodchopper—this wonderful exercise will focus mainly on your obliques. Using a cable machine, stand in front of the machine, facing away from it, with your feet hip-width apart. Turn to your right and grab the handle with both hands. Start with your arms parallel to the floor and twist your torso to pull the cable all the way around to the front and slightly to the left of your body. Control the weight on the way back to the start, and repeat 10 times. Finish by doing the same movements on the opposite side.
6. Hanging Knee Ups—you can do this while hanging from a bar. Ideally, your feet should not touch the ground. Grip the bar with your hands a little further than shoulder-width apart with your palms facing forward. Tighten your core and bend your knees and raise them up until they are parallel with the floor. Try not to swing your body during this movement. Pause and control your legs as you lower them back to start. Repeat 10 times.
7. Stability Ball Tuck—if you’d like to work on your stability, this is a great exercise to include in your core workout. Place your hands on the ground with your palms flat and the tops of your feet on a stability ball with your knees bent. Slowly roll the ball out until your legs are straight. Make sure you keep your core tight as you roll the ball out. Bring the ball back in toward your arms by bending your knees. Repeat ten times.
8. Hyperextension—this machine can be invaluable for anyone who suffers from back pain as well as anyone who wants to avoid it. (That means it’s great for everyone!) Using a hyperextension machine at a fitness facility, lean over the front pad of the equipment and lock your feet under the footpads, ensuring the upper pad sits slightly below your waist. Next, cross your arms in front of you and bend at the hips, slowly lowering your torso toward the floor. Allow for a good stretch at the bottom and then, using your back muscles (and possibly some glutes), raise your upper body back up until you are parallel with the ground. Repeat ten times.
3. Russian Twist—begin by sitting on a mat. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Grab a medicine ball or light dumbbell and with both arms outstretched, swing the ball or bell to your right while twisting your trunk. Bring back to the center and swing to the opposite side in the same manner. Return to the center and repeat ten times on each side.
4. Bicycles—besides the plank, studies say the bicycle exercise just might be the perfect all-around core exercise as it works numerous muscles simultaneously. Start by lying on your back with your hands clasped behind your head. Be sure not to pull on your neck as you do these exercises. Begin by raising your right knee and your left elbow toward each other. Breathe out and contract your abdominal muscles as you do so. Return to the start, and repeat on the opposite side. The idea is to perform this exercise relatively quickly in a back and forth “bicycle-riding” motion.