The basis for all movement breaks down to one crucial fit factor: core strength. Whether you’re running, lifting, boxing or downward dog-ing, you need a solid center to crush every exercise — especially if you want to do so sans aches.
“Core strength provides a firm platform to move our arms and legs, while keeping stress off the spine,” says Jonathan Ross, senior fitness advisor for the American Council on Exercise and author of Abs Revealed. “All the muscles that support the spine and torso — if they’re doing their job — both absorb forces and create forces. So they keep us stable when necessary and help us move when necessary.”
Stronger Core, Fewer Injuries
Science supports the idea of putting core stability at the top of your workout priority list. Studies show a strong midsection helps you handle the demands of daily tasks and intense sports (translation: makes both easier). Training your core can also help alleviate chronic back pain by addressing poor posture and alignment.
“If your core is not strong, your torso will be out of proper positioning when you sit, stand, walk or lift,” says Ross. Then, when you try to move faster or pick up a heavy object, a more powerful pain issue can strike.
So, how do you know if you’re strong to the core? Ross shares three tests for checking the stability of your midsection.
3 Core Strength Tests You Should Master
1. Leg Lowering Test
What it tests: Lower ab strength (including your rectus abdominis)
How to: Lie on your back on the floor with legs straight up in the air. Try to get them perpendicular to the floor, without bending your knees. You should have only a little space between your back and the mat. Slowly lower your legs toward the ground. Stop if you feel your back arching.
The goal: Lower your legs (without compromising a neutral spine position) to at least a 45-degree angle.
Take a step back: Can’t lower your legs without compromising your low back? Try doing the same move one leg at a time, bending your other leg to plant your foot on the floor. You can also start with bent legs, instead of straight.
2. Plank Hold
What it tests: Total-body stability (targeting your transverse abdominis)
How to: Get into a push-up position. Wrists should be under your shoulders, arms and legs straight and shoulders roll down away from your ears. Pull your belly button up toward your spine, body in a straight line from shoulders to hips to heels. Your glutes and legs should also be engaged.
The goal: Hold this straight position for 30 seconds, no dropping or piking your hips.
Take a step forward: If holding a plank is a piece of six pack-sculpting cake, it’s time to add a little movement. Shift your weight forward and backward as you push slightly off your toes. Or, keeping your entire body tight, drop your hips a couple inches left and then right toward the floor.
3. Rotating Side Plank
What it works: Your ability to twist and turn (using your obliques)
How to: Start lying on your side, elbow bent and placed directly under your shoulder. Bend your bottom leg to a 90-degree angle, knees stacked and top leg straight. Your body should be a straight line from shoulders to hips to feet. Place your top hand behind your head. Lift your hips up off the floor and hold at the top. Then, rotate your chest, head and arm downward toward the floor. Then return to the top, hips still lifted.
The goal: Keep your body tight and in a straight line while you perform 8-10 reps.
Take a step forward: Lift your bottom leg up off the floor, stacking your feet.
Take a step back: The first step to working on rotational strength involves a partner. Stand facing each other, hands together like you’re giving a high-five. Have your partner try to push you to each side as you resist the force.