A woman practises Hip extension exercises in the gym.

How to build your core strength — without planks or crunches

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If your workout routine is only strengthening your abs, then you’re bypassing 90% of the core. We find out how you can target integral core muscles.

The advice is everywhere: strengthen your core to fix posture, improve balance, and prevent injuries. But if that advice only includes training the abdominal muscles, then you’re missing out. The core also includes the diaphragm, pelvic floor, lower-back muscles, and hips — about thirty muscles. Ideally, these muscle groups work in harmony, a phenomenon called co-contraction. This should happen during every human movement, from baking cookies to running.

So, forget doing millions of crunches. Here are three better ways to train the entire core, from ribs to hips. As with any exercise, start slowly, never move into pain, and get guidance if you’re unsure.

Two young women practise spinal rotation exercises in a studio.
Photo by Bruce Mars

An undervalued component of spinal health is rotation. Merely walking in a straight line requires smooth spinal rotation. In studies where rotation is artificially restricted, people walk more slowly and use more energy. Research also shows that people with lower back pain demonstrates significantly less lumbar rotation than those without lower back pain.

Your back is supposed to twist. Each vertebrae has its own ability to rotate. Most of the rotation comes from your thoracic spine, while the rest comes from your lumbar spine. However, if your t-spine is stiff, your lumbar spine may take up extra rotational work. Therefore you may experience back pain while doing anything from moving sofas to lifting laundry baskets. Training rotation creates a more resilient core from every angle, so don’t be afraid to twist.

Spinal rotation exercises: Quadruped t-spine rotations, Turkish get-ups, woodchoppers, windmills (standing and kneeling).

A young woman practises spinal rotational exercises in a studio.
Photo by Elina Fairytale

Dynamic movements — such as those done in activities like basketball and dancing — are inherently unstable. The body is moving through multiple planes of motion at fast speeds. The way the body controls these forces is by stabilizing the core while the limbs move around it. Without central stability, all movement is compromised. The lower-back muscles will often grip the spine painfully to help create sturdiness. Three-dimensional stability should be developed statically through isometrics, and dynamically through compound movements.

For static stability: Glute bridge holds with a yoga block between knees, single-leg stands with a weight in one hand, prone Superman holds (leave forehead on the floor).

For dynamic stability: clamshells, Palloff presses, marching in place with a weight in one hand, bird-dogs with your knee on a BOSU ball.

Spinal and hip extension

Spinal extension (arching backwards) and hip extension (extending your leg behind you) are partner movements that combine to keep you standing tall and running fast. When hip extension is weak, your legs can’t fully stretch out behind you. The lumbar spine compensates by arching more, which can cause back pain and weakness

Your hips need to be able to extend by themselves before they can effectively partner with the spine. Excessive sitting could be related to poor hip extension, so first, stand up often. After that, it’s time to develop strength in your hip extenders: gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and hip adductors.

Hip extension exercises: single-leg glute bridges, hip thrusters, single-leg deadlifts, step-ups.

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