How to add core exercises to your workout routine

Core exercises are good for more than just building strong abdominal muscles. These efficient exercises can improve your posture, make everyday activities such as bending or twisting much easier, reduce low back pain, and even improve your balance and lessen the risk of falling. Core work should be part of a well-rounded workout routine.

A basic workout plan

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, a balanced exercise plan includes:

• At least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous activity, or an equivalent combination of the two every week. (During moderate activity, such as a brisk walk, you can talk, but not sing; during vigorous activity, such as running, you can't say more than a few words without catching your breath.)

• Strength-training sessions twice a week for all major muscle groups.

• Balance exercises if you're an older adult at risk for falling.

Core work falls under the second and third categories: strength training and enhancing balance. Advanced core exercises tone more than just core muscles: for example, chair stands strengthen muscles throughout your legs, while planks work some arm and back muscles as well as abdominal muscles.

Adding core work

You don't need to be sporting six-pack abs or be ready for an advanced Pilates class to add core work to your routine. Gentle core exercises can get you started and offer real benefits.

Core work doesn't have to take a lot of time, either. Slipping in exercises and stretches during the day or adding a few core exercises to your usual routine takes just a few minutes.

• Start slowly, and gradually challenge yourself. Aim to do a core workout two to three times a week. Start with basic exercises. When you can do a full set of reps easily, move on to a slightly more advanced set of exercises. Changing exercise routines can also help prevent boredom and keep you motivated.

• Sprinkle in core work throughout your day. Look for opportunities to do short bursts of exercises or stretches a few times a day. You can do this daily or start slowly with just a few days a week — say, every Monday and Thursday — then gradually incorporate core exercises into additional days.

• Tack core work on to strength sessions. When you do your twice-weekly strength training sessions (see the recommendations above), add two extra core exercises to your regimen. When you have time or when it becomes easy to do the core exercises, step it up again by beginning a separate core workout or sprinkling bursts of core work throughout your day. 

© Harvard Medical School