The best core exercise? Is there one? The focus should be on HOW you are doing a core exercise rather than WHAT the core exercise is.
I wanted to send out some information about the topic of whether or not there is a best core exercise, as I see people who always want to know what the best core exercises are to help with issues such as:
- Weakened Pelvic Floor Muscles/Stress Urinary Incontinence
- Overall Core Strengtheners
There are 2 points to cover about this.
The first point I think we can all agree on; whether there is an appropriate best core exercise. If you want to improve your abdominal core muscles, performing a bicep curl probably won’t be the best core exercise choice. Though you should still use your core when working your biceps, it still won’t be the most appropriate exercise choice if your purpose is to ‘work your core’. So, yes, I will definitely agree that there are more appropriate exercises to work our core muscles, but it doesn’t really matter what the exercise is, if you aren’t actually including your core muscles.
You can do all the planks and mountain climbers you want, but if you aren’t actually using the core muscles in the best way possible, you just won’t get the results you are working so hard for! So, it’s this 2nd point I really want to emphasize.
Its not about WHAT exercise is best …. its about HOW you do that exercise that makes the difference
If we use a traditional ab crunch as an example:
Performing it incorrectly
- there is either no co-ordinated breathing used or if there is an exhale when crunching up, it is small and not concentrated towards the lower belly area
- the front ribs show flaring out to the sides, indicative of overusing the internal oblique muscles
- the front ribs compress down the front of the belly, indicative of overusing the external oblique muscles
- most commonly, there isn’t optimal use of the transverse abdominis band resulting in the lower belly (below the belly button) pooching up towards the ceiling.
This first picture shows someone lying flat before they crunch up
The picture below shows this same person crunching up and allowing their belly to pooch a bit. Now, this is a person with a very low % of body fat and this is the best picture I could get, but just know that she is actually bearing down and pushing up towards the ceiling allowing the tiny piece of belly that she has pooch up, which is what you don’t want to do. (I realize you have to look very closely, LOL)
This next picture shows how the ribs have flared out, so rather than engaging the transverse abdominis muscle, the primary muscles used are the internal obliques. Yes, the belly appears nice and flat, but not with the most appropriate muscles.
This last picture shows a bit too much compression or pushing down through the front ribs, emphasizing the overuse of the external obliques. This pushing down in such a compressive way may also push right down on top of the pelvic floor as well, emphasizing a downwards pressure on our pelvic organs. Learn all sorts of different exercises to help with that part of your pelvic floor at
Why are the above strategies so bad?
It should always be quality before quantity. Using strategies that aren’t optimal may result in injury, muscle imbalances or the inability to reach the goals you are striving for.
Performing it correctly
The lower belly moves in, in response to you blowing your air out and it continues to move in as you crunch up; it should not be getting bigger as you crunch up. Lifting up should be done on the exhale and as you exhale, the belly moves in (towards the floor) and this helps engage the transverse abdominis band, creating more support around the back and pelvic joints. Focus on your lower belly as we are typically overusing our upper belly muscles. Really connect your breath with your core.
Try this lying on your back, in sitting and in standing – 10 breaths
Place your hand lightly on your lower belly and practice having it move in the entire time you are blowing air out. Exhale slowly, bit by bit, as if you are blowing out through a straw. Some people use a straw to help with this in the beginning until they get the hang of a long and slow exhale. This is an easier way to practice rather than a hard and fast exhale. It is really common for people to move the belly in, in response to blowing air out, only to stop about halfway, harden and then push down with the ribs.
For the purpose of this exercise, forget you have those ribs and have your entire focus on moving your lower belly. This does take practice but this is an essential first step to integrating with all of your exercise.
So, why do we ‘feel’ so much when doing a core exercise but still aren’t getting the results? Lets use the bicep curl as an example again. I can do a bicep curl with control, through full range of motion and good posture. Or I could have rounded shoulders, using my back or shoulder rather than bending my elbow. I could be cranking my wrist in poor positions and I could definitely leave my core out of it. My belly may hang out and my pelvic floor may not be doing anything. BUT I will still feel a lot in my biceps. If I’m really mindful though, I will also feel a lot in the areas I shouldn’t…like my back and my wrist.
The same holds true for the ab work we do. Just because we can ‘feel’ our abs working, doesn’t mean they are doing the BEST QUALITY of work that they could be doing. Though there are safer and less safe exercise for diastasis and prolapse issues and there is always a progressive regimen of exercises for people with leaking issues when they want to return to exercise, they will ALL start with knowing how to engage their awareness of their core muscles (including the transverse abs, pelvic floor, multifidus and the diaphragm) BEFOREthey go any further with their exercise.
So, this post doesn’t give you the best core exercise to do but it does give you a foundation for which you can put ANY appropriate exercises on top of and notice how much further you progress! As always, email me with any questions…firstname.lastname@example.org
And, for more videos about this, check out my youtube page at Cathy Watson Physiotherapy!