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6 Effective Core Exercises for All Levels

By Jayne Jang Belz

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Having a six-pack—or at least a tighter midsection—is probably on everyone's list of physique goals. While you might want that tighter core so you can look better in a bathing suit, there are real, practical reasons why you should strengthen that core.

The core is actually made up of more than just the abs, on which most of us focus.

Basically, all the muscles in your trunk—including your abdominals, obliques on your sides, back muscles, and even hip muscles—make up what fitness experts call your core.

The core is essential for providing balance, stability and smooth mobility throughout your entire body. Core muscles are the ones that enable you to carry your groceries, lift your baby, get things from a top shelf, or even bend over to tie your shoes. These muscles also allow you to have good posture and can help prevent low back pain. Not to mention, the muscles protect your spine and your internal organs.

Fortunately, you don't have to do a thousand crunches (boring!) to strengthen your core.

It's actually better to do functional movements. This is because "you want to train the body for how we actually move every day," said Jessica Matthews, assistant professor of Health, Exercise Science and Yoga Studies at San Diego Miramar College, and a yoga teacher, certified health coach, and senior adviser with the American Council on Exercise.

Matthews said her favorite core exercise recommendation is the plank. It's simple, but it works all the necessary muscles. And best of all, it's easy to progress in difficulty from there. "If you can hold a plank for 30 seconds, it's time to add variety and movements," Matthews said. "Add movements like rocking forward and back, and side to side."

Here are 6 effective core exercisesfrom easier to more difficult:

Hold each exercise for 20-30 seconds.

  1. Plank: Lie on your stomach on the floor or on an exercise mat with elbows near your sides and under your shoulders (forearms on the ground). Engaging your abdominal/core muscles and tightening your thigh muscles, lift your body off the ground until your body is completely aligned from head to toe. Don't raise your hips and don't bend your knees. Hold. Slowly return to the ground to starting position.
    plank
  2. Side Plank: Lie on your side with legs stacked and lower arm bent at the elbow. Place this elbow directly under the shoulder. Align your entire body from head to ankles. Engaging your core, lift your body—hips and knees—up, balancing on your bottom foot. Make sure your head stays aligned with your spine. Hold. Slowly return to starting position.
    side plank
  3. Walking Planks from Full Plank Position: Begin as you did with the plank on your stomach. Raise your body the same except lift your forearms off the ground so you are balancing on your hands. From this position, walk to the side by lifting your right arm and right foot up at the same time and then moving your left hand and left foot over.  Do two steps to the right and then two the left.
    full plank
  4. Plank Jacks: Get into an elbow plank or full plank position. Tighten your cores so your body is completely straight from head to toes. Hop feet out wide and then hop them back to starting position.
    plank jacks
  5. Mountain Climber: From the full plank position, lift your right foot and bring your knee to your chest between the hands. When you return the right leg, lift the left foot and draw it to your chest. Alternate as quickly as possible while maintaining good form and a tight core. Remember not to raise your hips.
    mountain climber
  6. Stability Ball Pikes: Start on all fours with your torso on the exercise ball. Tighten your core and walk your hands forward until your feet come off the floor and you are in a plank with knees are resting on top of the ball. Next, get ready to curl up into a pike. Pull your feet toward your chest and let the ball roll forward until your hips pike up above your shoulder. Keep your toes on top of the ball. Gently lower yourself back to the floor to the starting position.
    ball plank
    ball plank

Click here for more effective core exercises.