Okay- there is so much I could discuss when it comes to your core, your ab muscles, the good and the bad exercises... I might just need another future post about this! But today, I'm going to focus on my top 5 favourite core exercises that you can do from HOME with no or minimal equipment, and that are not putting high tension on your spine (with variations for beginner to intermediate levels). These exercises are NOT the only exercises I would recommend- because I definitely have more favourites, and there are certainly other exercises that are more beneficial to target your main abdominals! These exercises are more along the lines for someone who might have had previous back pain, has minimal or no equipment, and is looking for some simpler variations at home.
First, when it comes to your 'core', let's discuss what that really is:
You have 4 main abdominal muscles:
Rectus Abdominis But, there are many other muscles that contribute and are used for movements involving your 'core'. These get into our lumbar/back muscles, deep rotators, and more (But, I won't give you a full anatomy lesson for now).
[ Image from: https://www.onlinefitnesscoach.com/how-to-engage-your-core/ ]
Now, when I say 'spine under tension'- what exactly is that? Our spine is made up of vertebrae with fibrocartilage discs in between. It can be twisted, compressed, or put under high tension during certain movements, which ideally is not good for back health, especially for someone with pre-existing back pain or muscle imbalances.
We have heard research discuss that exercises like the old-school 'sit-up' actually puts the spine in an unnecessary amount of tension. There are many other exercises that do this as well. A lot does depend on one's spine health and fitness level- so some exercises may not be so harmless for some, while for others, it can cause serious risk for injury.
I'd say some main movements that are not ideal for the spine are:
Twisting/rotational movements combined with heavy load and flexed spine
Spinal flexion with heavy load
Any high repetitions of spinal movements
I'm not going to break down every movement or exercise that is potentially bad for your spine (maybe in the future), but I am here to explain why these 5 exercises are potentially better options in comparison to some other main stream ab exercises.
THE TOP 5 EXERCISES/VARIATIONS: I included the following exercises mostly because your spine is staying in a more neutral position, as opposed to the above potentially risky movements. 1. PLANK
So, a plank is literally keeping your spine in a static, neutral position while recruiting multiple muscles. I'm not saying that this exercise is the BEST ab exercise when you want to gain a 6 pack, but I'd say, in comparison to other movements, it is safer for your back. Of course, as I mentioned before, planks and variations of planks are not ideal for everyone- perhaps if you already have tight hip flexors, just like the sit-up, a plank may cause you to be recruiting your hip flexors and be potentially negatively contributing to pre-existing back pain and muscle imbalance. But, for the average person, planks should not be harmful and can still allow you to strengthen your core. Especially when we add variations! ... 2. PLANK TOUCHES OR CARRY UNDERS
There are many, many, many variations of planks. This is one that I like to do, that adds some resisted rotational movement to your plank, which will better recruit some muscles rather than just holding the plank. When we use our upper body to do taps outward or under ourselves, we keep alternating to replace our weight from left to right, so this is naturally going to make you want to resist a rotation.
If we advance it to a carry under movement with weight, we are getting a bit more of that rotation and some resistance, but our spine is in a safe position.
3. PLANK CRUNCH (AKA SPIDER CRUNCH)
Another plank variation that I like to do, but involving the lower body to throw in some instability to the plank and create a bit more challenge. If this is too difficult, you can try other lower body movements, like tapping each foot out and in while in plank position.
4. BIRD DOG
A great exercise where, again, our spine is in a nice neutral position. This exercise challenges the posterior chain (back) of your body as well and is a good exercise, especially for those who already have back pain. There are ways to make this exercise a bit easier, by only extending the leg, and then the arm separately. As you improve, you can try a full bird dog. A more advanced option of this is the next exercise...
5. STANDING BIRD DOG
Standing during the 'bird dog' movement will challenge your balance, therefore making you want to activate your core and abdominal muscles. This is more challenging, so try it first by holding a chair or wall, and progress to doing the movement with a light weight if you want.
Just like the regular bird dog, it's important to keep your spine straight and hips square to the direction you are facing.
Check out my YouTube video where I explain the exercises! ↓ In this blog, I go into much more detail about your core, and who might not benefit from these exercises.
*DISCLAIMER* I am a Registered Kinesiologist who can recommend and prescribe exercise, however, I am not a Physiotherapist or a Doctor, and therefore cannot diagnose any injury or health issue. Please note that every body is different, and because I cannot physically see you or know your health history, these exercises may or may not be appropriate for you. Always consult your doctor or a health care provider before starting a new exercise routine. Always listen to your body, and know that these exercises and the information provided in this blog/video may not be applicable or safe for you.