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Who wouldn’t want a tight waist and flat stomach? But aside from these obvious cosmetic benefits, a well developed core will also protect against lower back pain, one of the most common health complaints treated by physicians. Core muscles hold your body upright, maintain your balance and keep your trunk stable while your limbs are active. However, our sedentary lifestyle weakens these muscles so they are unable to protect the spinal network from trauma caused by normal daily activities. Core strengthening exercises will counteract this weakness so that you can move more freely and with less risk of injuring yourself.

The core muscle group includes not only the abdominals, but also selected back, pelvic floor and hip muscles. In addition, some experts consider the gluteals (butt) and hamstrings (back of upper leg) muscles part of the core. Each area of your core should be proportionately developed so that your body remains well aligned. Just about every movement originates from your core, so problems there will affect you on many levels, including twisted knees and pulled shoulders. (Check out my article Developing a Strong Core to Remain Pain and Injury Free for additional background information.)

The exercises in this section are some of the more traditional ones which have been used for generations to strengthen and/or cosmetically enhance the core area. However, since in the real world most core movements involve multi-planar (non-linear) movements, the core muscle group will be better strengthened and conditioned overall through the functional exercises outlined in the Functional Training Exercises section of this site.

However, the traditional exercises still have their place in an effective core training program. Because many of these exercises isolate and target specific muscle groups, they are great for building strength where a specific weakness has been identified. Therefore, use them in conjunction with the functional exercises to build a strong and healthy core. Not only will you enjoy the “cosmetic” benefits, you will also experience greater overall strength and freedom of movement in your everyday activities.

If you’re new to working out, start at the basic level and progress from there at a realistic pace to avoid injury. It takes time to build a strong and healthy body, so don’t start with unreasonable expectations that within a few weeks you’ll be smoking hot. Understanding and accepting this will prevent you from becoming discouraged and allow you to actually enjoy your transformation process.


Core Exercises You Can Do At Home
Front Abdominals (Rectus Abdominus/Transverse Abdominus)
Side Abdominals (Obliques)
Lower Back (Erector Spinae/Multifidus)
Pelvic Floor Muscle Group
Hip Muscles


IMPORTANT NOTE:

Always exercise in a safe and responsible manner. Please be aware that as with most physical activities, there is always a risk of injury associated with weight training and other exercise programs. While I have made every effort to describe how to perform the exercises outlined on this site in a safe manner, note that every body is different and so not all exercises can or should be peformed by all people. Therefore, if you feel pain or discomfort when attempting any of the exercises described on this site, please stop immediately.

It is always important to consult your physician before starting any exercise program, especially if you have been sedentary for an extended period of time. This is particularly true if any of the following apply to your current medical condition:
  • chest pain or pain in the neck and/or arm
  • shortness of breath
  • a diagnosed heart condition
  • joint and/or bone problems
  • currently taking cardiac and/or blood pressure medications
  • have not previously been physically active
  • dizziness
In addition, if you have any chronic medical conditions (such as diabetes or arthritis) or risk factors (such as smoking or being more than 20 pounds overweight), and have not discussed exercising with your doctor, you should do so before beginning. Exercise is often an important part of the treatment for such conditions, but you may have some limitations or special needs that your doctor can tell you about.

If none of these apply to you, start gradually and sensibly. However, if you feel any of the physical symptoms listed above when you start your exercise program, contact your physician right away.


Front Abdominals
(Rectus Abdominus/Transverse Abdominus)

The two key muscle groups here are the rectus abdominus and the transverse abdominus. The rectus abdominus is situated between the ribcage and the pelvis and is visible as the 6 pack area when a person is lean enough for this muscle to show. The transverse abdominus lies beneath the rectus abdominus and both stabilizes the trunk and maintains internal abdominal pressure. You can feel it working when you need to pressurize the abdominal cavity, such as in childbirth, defecation or coughing, for example.

When doing their core training, many women focus primarily on working their rectus abdominus muscle with the expectation that doing so will give them the flat, tight stomach they’re looking for. However, that’s not likely to happen, for two reasons. First, it’s mainly the transverse abdominus which holds the stomach in. (The transverse abdominus acts like a belt, drawing your entire core in more tightly to your vertical midline.) Second, if you overdevelop the rectus abdominus compared to your obliques, it’s naturally going to bulge outwards. (Years ago a friend shared with me the secret behind his amazing abs, which was to develop the obliques so they pulled the rectus abdominus flat. I have not found any documentation to support his claim, but I can tell you it worked for me. My rounded stomach quickly flattened once I incorporated oblique exercises into my training routine.)

Following are some exercises that target the rectus abdominus and/or the transverse abdominus. There are of course many other exercises that will work the muscles equally as well; these are simply a few of the basics to get you started. As I have time I will add additional exercises to this section, but my focus will be to develop the functional training section of this site because for core training in particular this is where I believe you will get the better return on your training time investment.

According to a study completed by the Biomechanics Lab at San Diego State University, two of the best exercises to work the rectus abdominus are the bicycle crunch and the ab crunch on an exercise ball. You will therefore find these exercises listed below. The best exercise I know for the transverse abdominus is the Plank. I am also including an alternate exercise that is a little easier for beginners. It was obtained from spine-health.com and is what I will call the Transverse Abdominus Reach.

Bicycle Crunch Exercise
Ab Crunch on Exercise Ball
Plank Exercise
Transverse Abdominus Reach


Bicycle Crunch Exercise

  1. Lie down on your back on a yoga/exercise mat. Press your lower back to the floor and place your hands near your temples. (Some trainers suggest you put your hands behind your head, but when you do so there is a very real danger of pulling your neck out of alignment as you tire. Therefore, I suggest you place your hands anywhere but behind the head.) Lift both your shoulders and legs off the ground.

    Start Position

  2. Keeping your right left straight, bring your left knee towards the center of your body and simultaneously lift your right shoulder up and twist it towards your left knee.

    First Finish Position
    Right elbow to left knee

  3. Drop your right shoulder back the to start position as you extend your left leg. Then switching sides, pull your right leg in and twist your left shoulder towards it.
  4. Breathe out as you bring elbow and knee together, and breathe in as you move them away from each other.
  5. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but try not to go to complete failure. Risk of injury always increases as your muscles start to tire.

Helpful Tips

  • Using an exercise mat will provide a little extra cushioning on your back so that you feel more comfortable doing the exercise. This will make it easier to focus on proper body position.
  • Try to keep your lower back against the floor throughout the exercise. This will keep your rectus abdominus muscle more fully engaged and minimize stress on your lower back.
  • Keep your hands near your temples (do not grab your ears!) or rest them on your shoulders rather than place them behind your head. If you place them behind your head, there is a possibility you could pull your neck out of alignment if your movement becomes jerky as you tire.
  • Go slowly at first, until you get the feel of this exercise so that you don’t accidentally drive your elbow in to your knee. Rather than bring your elbow bone to the top of your kneecap, try to touch the inner part of your elbow to the inner part of your knee. This will help avoid accidental hard (and painful!) contact.

    Wrong Way - Elbow can hit kneecap

    Right Way - Elbow avoids kneecap

  • There are a couple of ways to progress this exercise to make it harder.
    • Perform the movement a little faster.
    • Increase the number of reps for each set.
  • To make the exercise a little easier, keep your knees bent throughout the exercise.

    Knees bent makes exercise easier for beginners


Ab Crunch on Exercise Ball

  1. Sit on an exercise ball with your feet approximately hip width apart and flat on the floor. Roll back slowly and let the ball slide back until it fits the curve in your back. Your thighs and torso should be parallel to the floor, so that your body is in a straight line from your head to your knees. Place your hands near your temples. (Some trainers suggest you put your hands behind your head, but when you do so there is a very real danger of pulling your neck out of alignment as you tire. Therefore, I suggest you place your hands anywhere but behind the head.)

    Start Position

  2. Contract your abs and use them to lift your upper body off the ball. Think about moving your shoulders to your hips. However, the crunch is a relatively short motion, so do not lift your torso higher than 45° and keep your lower back solid against the ball at all times.

    Finish Position

  3. Slowly lower your shoulders back to the start position in a controlled manner.
  4. Breathe out as you lift your upper body and breathe in as you lower it back to the start position.
  5. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but try not to go to complete failure. Risk of injury always increases as your muscles start to tire.

Helpful Tips

  • Doing this exercise on an exercise ball as opposed to on the floor better isolates your abdominal muscles. When you are lying on the floor, it`s easier for your hip and leg muscles to assist with the exercise.
  • If you experience any discomfort in your lower back area then reposition the ball to better fit curve of your back and keep a neutral spine position. You may require a larger or smaller ball to accomplish this.
  • Concentrate on keeping your abs and entire core area tight throughout the exercise.
  • Keep your hands near your temples (do not grab your ears!) or rest them on your shoulders rather than place them behind your head. If you place them behind your head, there is a possibility you could pull your neck out of alignment if your movement becomes jerky as you tire.
  • Keep your neck in a fixed position from start to finish. So as you lift your upper body, look up at the ceiling as opposed to forward in front of you. This will prevent your neck from rolling forward.
  • Try to keep the ball stable throughout the exercise, so that it doesn`t roll forward or back.
  • Moving your feet closer together makes your body less stable so that you now also work more of your oblique muscles to stabilize yourself.
  • This exercise can be progressed by holding your body in the up position a little longer. You can also hold a dumbbell against your chest (use both hands!) for added resistance. To really challenge yourself, try lifting one leg off the floor.

Plank Exercise

  1. Lie face down on an exercise mat resting on your forearms, palms flat on the floor, legs trailing straight out behind you. Your elbows should be positioned directly under your shoulders.
  2. Lift yourself up onto your toes and position yourself so that your feet are about shoulder width apart and your body is in a straight line from head to toe.

    Plank Position

  3. Tighten your core area and focus on keeping your body in that straight line, so that your butt neither sags nor sticks up in the air. Think about pulling your belly button towards your spine to really tighten things up.
  4. Breathing normally, hold the position for the required count (see helpful tips below).
  5. Relax, recover and repeat.
  6. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but try not to go to complete failure. Risk of injury always increases as your muscles start to tire.

Helpful Tips

  • Using an exercise mat will provide a little extra cushioning on your elbows and forearms so that you feel more comfortable doing the exercise. This will make it easier to focus on proper body position.
  • Ensure your elbow and shoulder are in a straight line (i.e. shoulder is directly above elbow), to minimize stress on either joint.
  • If it hurts to come up on your toes, try wearing running shoes.
  • Avoid letting your hips and back sag. Planks will only be effective if you maintain a flat line from shoulders to feet.
  • To help keep your neck in proper alignment, make sure to look at the ground rather than in front of you.
  • Depending on your existing core strength, you may only be able to hold this plank position for 5-10 seconds. But as your strength grows, you can work up to 30 seconds, then 60 seconds and all the way to 120 seconds if you can.
  • Remember to breathe normally throughout the exercise. This will keep your core muscles supplied with the oxygen they require to continue holding your body steady.
  • If you find this exercise too difficult at first, raise yourself onto your knees as opposed to your toes until your core becomes strong enough to support you while on your toes.
    Beginner Position

  • As your strength builds, this exercise can be progressed by lifting either one arm or one leg 6-8 inches off the floor for a short period before switching sides. Then for an extra challenge you can simultaneously lift one arm and the opposite leg.
  • You can also do straight arm planks for additional challenge; place your hands on the floor rather than your elbows and forearms.

    Straight Arm Plank Position


Transverse Abdominus Reach

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

    Start Position

  2. Draw your belly button towards your spine as you breathe in, keeping your spine relaxed and neutral.
  3. Breathe out, and reach towards the ceiling as you bring your head and shoulders off the floor (shoulder blades should be barely touching the floor).

    Reach Position

  4. Hold for a few seconds.
  5. Relax and repeat.
  6. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but try not to go to complete failure. Risk of injury always increases as your muscles start to tire.

Helpful Tips

  • Using an exercise mat will provide a little extra cushioning on your back so that you feel more comfortable doing the exercise. This will make it easier to focus on proper body position.
  • Keep your neck relaxed throughout the exercise to avoid straining it. If you tense your body too much as you reach up, you risk injury.
  • Depending on your existing core strength, you may only be able to hold this position for a few seconds. But as your strength grows, you can work up to 30 seconds or longer.
  • Remember to breathe normally throughout the exercise. This will keep your core muscles supplied with the oxygen they require to continue holding your body steady.

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Side Abdominals (Obliques)

As with the front abdominals, there are two key oblique muscles – the internal obliques and the external obliques. As the name suggests, the internal oblique muscle (one on each side of your body) is situated deeper than the external oblique; the external oblique runs over top the internal oblique and diagonally in the opposite direction.

In addition to core stabilization, the oblique muscles twist your torso from side to side (rotation) and bend the body sideways (side flexion). The internal and external oblique muscles work together, but in opposite directions. For example, if you turn to the right, you are contracting both your right internal oblique and your left external oblique muscles.

Because of the twisting movements involved with this muscle group, your obliques will greatly benefit from functional training. However, here are a few oblique specific training exercises you use to do some isolation training for this muscle group.

The Bicycle Crunch and Captain’s Chair exercises listed above in the Front Abdominals section are also effective at working the oblique muscles. The Side Plank and Oblique Crunch are two additional exercises that will strengthen your obliques.

Side Plank
Obique Crunch

Side Plank

  1. Lie on your right side on an exercise mat resting on your right forearm, with your legs in a straight line with your body. Your right elbow should be positioned directly under your right shoulder at a right angle to your body, so that your fingers are pointing in the direction you are facing. Your left arm can rest lightly on your left side or you can place your left hand on your left hip. Place your left leg on top of your right.

    Start Position

  2. As you exhale, use your oblique muscles to lift your body up onto the edge of your right foot, positioning your body in a straight line from head to foot.

    Finish Position

  3. Tighten your core area and focus on keeping your body in that straight line, so that your butt does not sag downwards or lift up too high, and your body does not rotate forward or back, pulling you off balance.
  4. Breathing normally, hold the position for the required count (see helpful tips below).
  5. Relax, recover and repeat.
  6. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but try not to go to complete failure. Risk of injury always increases as your muscles start to tire.
  7. Switch sides.

Helpful Tips

  • Using an exercise mat will provide a little extra cushioning on your elbow and forearms so that you feel more comfortable doing the exercise. This will make it easier to focus on proper body position.
  • Before lifting up, ensure your elbow is directly under your shoulder, to minimize stress on both joints.
  • Concentrate on keeping yourself in a straight line from head to foot - avoid lifting your hips too high or letting them sag down.
  • Do not allow either your hip or your shoulder to roll back as this will pull you off balance. In addition, watch that your shoulder does not roll forward, as this will cause the rest of you to roll forward as well. If you do find yourself falling either backwards or forwards, you can place your left hand on the ground in front of you the first few times until you get the feel of it.
  • Depending on your existing core strength, you may only be able to hold this plank position for 5-10 seconds. But as your strength grows, you can work up to 30 seconds, then 60 seconds and all the way to 120 seconds if you can.
  • Remember to breathe normally throughout the exercise. This will keep your core muscles supplied with the oxygen they require to continue holding your body steady.
  • If you find this exercise too difficult at first, bend your knees and raise yourself onto the edge of your knee rather than your foot.

    Beginner Position

  • As your strength builds, this exercise can be progressed by lifting your free arm straight up in the air, either with or without a dumbbell in hand. Alternatively, trying lifting and holding your upper leg. Then if you’re really feeling ambitious, you can lift both arm and leg simultaneously.

    Advanced: Arm and leg simultaneously in the air

  • You can also do straight arm planks for additional challenge; place your hand on the floor and lift yourself straight up, ensuring a straight line from hand to elbow to shoulder. Point your free arm straight up in the air, either with or without a dumbbell in hand.

    Straight Arm Side Plank Position


Oblique Crunch

  1. Lie on your back, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place your hands near your temples. (Some trainers suggest you put your hands behind your head, but when you do so there is a very real danger of pulling your neck out of alignment as you tire. Therefore, I suggest you place your hands anywhere but behind the head.)

    Start Position

  2. As you exhale, use your abdominal muscles to lift your shoulders up. As you come up, use your oblique muscles to twist your right shoulder and towards the centre of your body.

    Step 1: Raise your shoulders
    Step 2: Twist using your obliqe muscles

  3. Squeeze as hard as you can for a second or two and then as your inhale, slowly lower your right shoulder so that it is back in line with the left shoulder and then lower both shoulders to the ground.
  4. Complete as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but try not to go to complete failure. Risk of injury always increases as your muscles start to tire.
  5. Relax, recover and repeat for the required number of sets.
  6. Switch sides.

Helpful Tips

  • Using an exercise mat will provide a little extra cushioning on your back so that you feel more comfortable doing the exercise. This will make it easier to focus on proper body position.
  • Keep your hands near your temples (do not grab your ears!) or rest them on your shoulders rather than place them behind your head. If you place them behind your head, there is a possibility you could pull your neck out of alignment if your movement becomes jerky as you tire.
  • Keep your elbows fixed during this exercise and focus on twisting your trunk to rotate your body.
  • During each set you can either focus on one side only or alternate sides.
  • For an added challenge, cross your left leg over your right knee and do set of crunches from your right side. Then switch sides.

    Advanced: Position left leg over your right knee and crunch the right side of your body

  • You can also do this exercise on a stability ball. Start in the regular ab crunch position (see above) and then twist your shoulder towards the center of your body as you lift up.

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Lower Back (Erector Spinae/Multifidus)

The erector spinae is a group of muscles and tendons which run alongside both sides of the spinal column from top to bottom. The mulifidus muscle also runs the length of the back, but it is a much deeper muscle. (Although the lats and traps (upper part of the back) are secondarily involved with core stabilization, we will not deal with them here because exercises for these muscle groups are outlined in the Back Exercises section.)

Lower back strengthening exercises should be part of any woman’s core workout program. Weakness here can lead to either sudden injury or ongoing chronic pain that is very difficult to live with. Aside from that, stronger back muscles will improve your posture and thus your overall appearance - standing taller and straighter makes your stomach look flatter.

However, when it comes to lower back isolation exercises, more is not necessarily better. While some lower back isolation work can be beneficial, too much can stress the back muscles and leave them prone to injury. It is therefore better to incorporate only a few isolation exercises into your training routine and do the rest of your strength building through multi joint full body functional exercises.

Please be aware that lower back isolation exercises can be risky for some, primarily because many people have very weak backs. The Bridge (from Yoga) is a relatively safe exercise, and it is therefore the one I recommend you try before either the Hyperextensions or Supermans. Both Hyperextensions and Supermans are higher risk and so should not be attempted at all if you have lower back issues of any kind. Please discuss these exercises with your health care provider before attempting them if you have any pre-existing condition with your lower back.

Romanian (or straight leg) deadlifts also work to strengthen the lower back. Because Romanian Deadlifts are also great for the hamstrings, I have listed this exercise in the Leg Exercises section. Note that deadlifts are also a somewhat risky exercise, and are therefore to be approached with caution.

Bridge Exercise
Supermans
Hyperextensions
Reverse Hyperextensions

Bridge Exercise

Aside from strengthening your abs and lower back, bridges stretch the hips and quads. Flexibility in these areas help keep your pelvis properly aligned, which is key to avoiding chronic back pain. So bridges really are a great exercise that should be regular part of any woman’s workout routine. But please note, however, that after you perform bridge exercises, you should briefly stretch your back in the opposite direction to offset some of the stress that has just been placed on it. You can do so by remaining on your back, wrapping your arms around your knees and gently hugging your knees to your chest.

Here are the instructions for the bridge exercise:

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground about hip distance apart. Your feet should be directly under your knees, with your heels positioned as close to your butt as possible. Rest your arms at your sides, palms facing the floor and lift your hips a few inches off the floor.

    Start Position

  2. Contract your core muscles (think about pulling your belly button to your spine), and lift your hips so that your butt and back come off the floor and your body forms a diagonal line from knees to chest.

    Bridge Position

  3. Taking regular, deep breaths, hold the position as long as you can without letting your hips or lower back sag.
  4. Slowly return to the floor in a controlled manner. Think about gently lowering your body one inch at a time, starting from your upper back and progressing down to your tailbone.
  5. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner.

Helpful Tips

  • Using an exercise mat will provide a little extra cushioning on your shoulders and neck so that you feel more comfortable doing the exercise. This will make it easier to focus on proper body position.
  • Your knees should be in line with your hips (i.e. knees not pointing either towards or away from each other) and your feet should be directly under your knees.
  • Be sure to keep your back straight at all times while holding the bridge pose. Arching the back could lead to injury and it indicates you are not properly focusing on your core muscles.
  • While your shoulders and feet will take the weight of your body, you should not feel undue pressure on your shoulders (or neck). Press your shoulder blades to the mat to better support yourself and do not allow any weight or pressure on your neck. You should feel a stretch, but no pain. If you do feel pain, it could be you are doing the exercise incorrectly, or you are stretching too far too soon. If you do feel either tightness or pain please back off immediately so that you don’t accidentally pull a muscle.
  • You should feel your lower back and butt muscles doing the work, but ensure your entire core (i.e. abs and lower back) muscles are engaged to keep your pelvis level throughout the exercise.
  • If you are performing the exercise correctly, you’ll start to feel a burn in your thighs and butt.
  • Start slowly and work your way up to holding this pose for a minute or two if you can. If you find you have trouble holding the pose for more than a few seconds when you first try this exercise, then you can try slowly dropping your hips about 6 inches for a second or two and then raising them back up for another few seconds. But make sure you do the raising and lowering of your hips with precision and control while keeping your core contracted so that you do not risk lower back injury.
  • This exercise can also be progressed by lifting one leg off the ground. In the bridge (finish) position, lift one leg and hold it out straight in line with your body. Your leg should remain in this position throughout the exercise. (If your hips sag or drop, then go back to the two leg version until you are stronger.)

Supermans

In addition to your lower back, Supermans work the trapezius (traps) muscles in your upper back, as well as the shoulders and glutes (butt muscles) and hamstrings (upper back of leg). Though Supermans are considered a beginner level exercise, if your back is tight they could feel painful, so please exercise caution when attempting them for the first time. If you feel any pain, then stop what you’re doing immediately.

Here’s how to do the Superman exercise:

  1. Lie down on your stomach and extend your arms over your head (palms down) and our legs straight out behind you.

    Start Position

  2. While exhaling, raise your arms and chest off the ground.

    Finish Position

  3. Squeeze your core muscles and hold the position for a few seconds before slowing lowering yourself back to the floor. Inhale as you lower your body.
  4. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but in no way should you come close to failure with this exercise. Risk of injury always increases as your muscles start to tire.
  5. Relax, recover and repeat for the required number of sets.

Helpful Tips

  • Using an exercise mat will provide a little extra cushioning so that you feel more comfortable doing the exercise. This will make it easier to focus on proper body position.
  • Perform this exercise with caution at first and if you feel any sort of pinch in your lower back then stop immediately.
  • Make sure you are looking at the ground throughout the exercise, although if you are extremely flexible you might need to lift your head a little near the top of the stretch.
  • Do not arch your back.
  • Be sure to exhale during the lift.
  • An easier version of this exercise is to place your arms at your sides, palms facing up, and then lift your upper body off the floor. You could always do a few of these to help you warm up for the Supermans.
  • Some trainers advise this exercise may be progressed by lifting your legs off the ground at the same time as your arms and chest, but I personally find this pinches my back and so I do not generally recommend it. Variations include lifting only one side at a time (same arm, same leg) or lifting the opposite arm and leg together. Please proceed slowly and carefully if you decide to try either option.

Hyperextensions

Hyperextension exercises primarily work the erector spinae muscle group of the lower back. They also secondarily work the gluteus maximus (largest butt muscle) and the hamstrings (upper back of the leg). Hyperextensions can be done at home using a stability ball – the larger the ball, the larger the range of motion you can achieve. Provided your movements are precise and controlled, stability ball hyperextensions are a relatively safe exercise. But as with most exercises, there is potential for injury if your form is sloppy. Therefore, exercise care when doing hyperextension exercises.

The hyperextension exercise on a stability ball is done as follows:

  1. Position your belly and upper part of your legs on a stability ball. Stretch your legs straight out behind you with toes touching the floor for balance. Let your upper body stretch forward over the end of the ball and position your hands near your temples. (Some trainers suggest you put your hands behind your head, but when you do so there is a very real danger of pulling your neck out of alignment as you tire. Therefore, I suggest you place your hands anywhere but behind the head.)

    Start Position

  2. Tighten your core muscles (both abs and lower back) and while you are exhaling lift your upper body off the ball. Keep your neck in line with your spine.

    Finish Position

  3. Hold for a second or two and then lower your body back to the ball as you inhale.
  4. Complete as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but do not go to complete failure. Risk of injury always increases as your muscles start to tire.
  5. Relax, recover and repeat for the required number of sets.

Helpful Tips

  • If you have trouble keeping the ball still, try bracing your heels against a wall. Also, the wider your legs are spread (within reason), the easier it will be to balance on the ball.
  • If it feels awkward to place your hands near your temples, try crossing your arms in front of you and placing opposite hand to shoulder.
  • Raise your upper body in a slow and controlled manner. Do not use momentum in an attempt to get additional height. Instead, lift yourself only as high as you can comfortably go, and if that’s not very high don’t worry as your range of motion will improve as your core grows stronger.
  • Ensure your neck remains in line with your spine at all times. Resist the temptation to tilt your head back as you come up in an attempt to get more height. Instead, concentrate on lifting from the core.
  • Positioning yourself slightly more forward on the ball, i.e. on your belly and lower chest, will make the exercise easier, while placing the ball more towards your hips will increase intensity.
  • If you have a small enough ball, you can try these exercises with your knees on the floor for greater stability.

Reverse Hyperextensions

Reverse hyperextensions are similar to regular hyperextensions in that they work the erector spinae muscle group of the lower back, the gluteus maximus (largest butt muscle) and the hamstrings (upper back of the leg). They can be done on the floor with a stability ball and progressed in terms of difficulty using a second ball and/or weight bench, as I will demonstrate below. However, the exercise becomes riskier as it is progressed, so please start with the simplest format and do not progress the difficulty until you are comfortable with your strength and stability for the basic exercise.

Here is how you would do the basic reverse hyperextension exercise on a stability ball:

  1. Lie down with your torso and hips resting on a stability ball, and place your palms on the floor in front of you for balance. Let your body roll forward a bit so that your hips are centered on the top of the ball. (Ensure your position feels solid so that you do not lose your balance as you lift your legs.) Depending on the size of your stability ball, your feet may or may not be resting on the floor.

    Start Position

  2. As you exhale, tighten your core muscles and use them to raise your legs into the air so that your body is in a straight line. Since this is a “hyperextension” exercise, you can lift a little beyond the straight line, but do not lift too much higher than that or you risk impinging your back. (It’s not that the human back hasn’t been designed to hyperextend, it’s just that for most of us our muscles are too tight to allow this to happen without injury.)

    Finish Position

  3. Inhale as you lower your legs back towards the floor.
  4. Complete as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but do not go to complete failure. Risk of injury always increases as your muscles start to tire.
  5. Relax, recover and repeat for the required number of sets.

Helpful Tips

  • Any sized stability ball will work. The bigger the stability ball, the higher your legs will lift into the air.
  • If you have difficulty keeping your legs straight, then your hamstrings may be tight and you will want to work on stretching them out.
  • Raise your legs in a slow and controlled manner. Do not use momentum in an attempt to get additional height. Instead, lift yourself only as high as you can comfortably go, and if that’s not very high don’t worry as your range of motion will improve as your core grows stronger.
  • Make sure you are using your core muscles to lift your legs. Do not use your arms to raise and lower your upper body to help swing your legs up.
  • Tighten your glutes at the top of the lift and hold for a second before lowering to get an extra burn.
  • One way to progress this exercise to simultaneously challenge your stabilizing muscles is by doing it on a stability bench, as shown below. Place the ball on the bench and slowly roll your body over the top until your arms are low enough to securely grip the bench. Try keeping your legs parallel to the floor between lifts, as opposed to letting them fall towards the floor.
    Reverse Hyperextension - On Bench
    Start Position
    Finish Position

  • Another way to progress this exercise is to hold a second ball between your legs. Grasp the ball between your lower legs and make sure you have a good grip before leaning forward onto the stability ball.

    Reverse Hyperextension with 2 Balls - On Floor
    Start Position
    Finish Position

    Reverse Hyperextension with 2 Balls - On Bench
    Start Position
    Finish Position


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Pelvic Floor Muscle Group

Your pelvic floor muscles are part of a group of interrelated muscles, tendons and ligaments that help stabilize the pelvis and spine, as well as support the organs of the lower abdominal cavity (i.e. bladder, womb, bowel) and control the muscles which close the anus, vagina and urethra. The pelvic floor muscle group forms a supportive sling between your legs from the pubic bone in front to the base of your spine at the back.

Weak pelvic floor muscles force the other core muscles (i.e. back and abs) to compensate, which creates structural imbalances that can lead to abdominal or back pain. A common side effect of weakened or damaged pelvic floor muscles is stress incontinence, or the leakage of small amounts of urine while coughing, sneezing, laughing or exercising. Factors which can potentially weaken or damage the pelvic floor muscles include childbirth, chronic coughing, aging and inactivity.

The most common exercise prescribed for strengthening the pelvic floor muscles are Kegels. Named after Dr. Arnold Kegel, the exercise consists of contracting (inwards and upwards) and relaxing the muscles that form part of the pelvic floor. You can identify which are your pelvic floor muscles by using them to stop your flow of urine. However, do not stop and start urine flow as a method of doing Kegel exercises as this could lead to problems with your bladder.

Those women who have weak pelvic floor muscles should do Kegel exercises lying down until the muscles become stronger. They can then progress to doing the exercises either sitting or standing. To do Kegels, work up to holding your pelvic muscle contraction for 8-10 seconds and then relaxing the muscles. Focus on isolating your pelvic floor muscles only (avoid squeezing your butt, ad or thigh muscles) and remember to breathe naturally as you hold the contraction. Once you get the hang of it, Kegels can be performed anywhere. Some of the online sources I reviewed recommend that women with specific pelvic floor muscle issues do Kegel exercises a few times per day, but note that over exercising these muscles can lead to muscle fatigue and urine leakage.

For more detailed instructions regarding how to perform Kegel exercises, check out The Mayo Clinic and/or MedlinePlus.


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Hip Muscles

When it comes to core training, many coaches and trainers focus primarily on the abs and lower back. But according to University of Calgary Kinesiology Professor Reed Ferber, pelvic and hip muscles play a crucial role in stabilizing the body during activity and so exercising them should be an important part of any core strengthening program. If your hips muscles aren’t strong enough to provide balance, the resulting instability can lead to knee injury. In fact, a University of Delaware study of basketball and track athletes found that the best predictor of who would develop leg injuries during the season was weakness in one of the hip muscles.

All the hip muscles - external rotators, internal rotators, extensors, flexors, abductors and adductors – work together to play a major role in core stability and movement. Functional training is the best way to develop hip muscles that are well balanced in terms of relative strength to each other so that they do not create imbalances that manifest as strain or injury elsewhere in the body. However, following are a few traditional exercises you can do to strengthen specific areas of the hip where you may be weak. For abductor and adductor exercises, please visit the leg exercises page for this site.

Note that Professor Ferber recommends these exercises be done at the end of your workout. That’s because your hip muscles are key stabilizing muscles, and so if they are pre-exhausted prior to your workout, risk of injury will increase due to fatigue.

External Rotators
Internal Rotators
Hip Extensors
Hip Flexors

External Rotators

External rotation is rotation of the leg away from the body. Here’s a simple exercise for strengthening your external hip rotators.

  1. Lie on your side with knees bent and pulled slightly towards the chest. Rest your head on your arm for support.
    Start Position

  2. Keeping your feet together, rotate your top knee up into the air.
    Finish Position

  3. Hold the position for a second or two and then slowly rotate your knee back to the ground.
  4. Complete as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but do not go to complete failure. Risk of injury always increases as your muscles start to tire, particularly for these smaller muscle groups.
  5. Relax, recover and switch sides.
  6. Repeat for the required number of sets.

Helpful Tips

  • Using an exercise mat will provide a little extra cushioning so that you feel more comfortable doing the exercise. This will make it easier to focus on proper body position.
  • Keep your core tight.
  • Keep your hamstring (upper back of the legs) muscles relaxed and think about initiating the movement from the outside of your hip. If you are doing the exercise properly, this is where you will feel the burn.

Internal Rotators

Internal rotation is rotation of the leg towards the centre of the body. Your internal hip rotators can be strengthened by doing the following exercise:

  1. Lie on your right side with your right knee on the ground, bent and pulled slightly towards the chest. Your left knee should be in the air, bent with your left foot flat on the ground behind you. Rest your head on your arm for support.

    Start Position

  2. Rotate your right knee up into the air.

    Finish Position

  3. Hold the position for a second or two and then slowly rotate your knee back to the ground.
  4. Complete as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but do not go to complete failure. Risk of injury always increases as your muscles start to tire, particularly for these smaller muscle groups.
  5. Relax, recover and switch sides.
  6. Repeat for the required number of sets.

Helpful Tips

  • Using an exercise mat will provide a little extra cushioning so that you feel more comfortable doing the exercise. This will make it easier to focus on proper body position.
  • Keep your core tight.
  • Keep your hamstring (upper back of the legs) muscle relaxed and think about initiating the movement from the inside of your hip. If you are doing the exercise properly, this is where you will feel the burn.

Hip Extensors

Hip extensors are the muscles in the back area of your hip that pull your thigh bone back behind you. The gluteus maximus (your largest butt muscle) is the main hip extensor, although the adductor magnus is also involved in hip extension. A simple exercise (known as the Donkey Kick) to develop the hip extensor function (as well as tone and tighten your butt) is as follows:

  1. Position yourself on your hands and knees, ideally on a yoga mat or similar surface. Your hands should be directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Arch your shoulders slightly and tighten your abs. Lift one leg very slightly off the floor.

    Start Position

  2. Keeping your knee bent, lift the leg into the air until your thigh is at least in line with your back, and higher if you can. The bottom of your foot should be facing up.

    Minimum Finish Position
    Thigh parallel to the floor

  3. Squeeze your butt muscle to hold the knee in position for a few seconds and slowly bring it back to the ground.
  4. Breathe out as you lift your leg and breathe in as you lower it back to the starting position.
  5. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but don't get careless and use your body to help throw the leg up, as you could twist your spine and seriously hurt yourself.
  6. Switch legs and repeat.

Helpful Tips:

  • Using an exercise mat will provide a little extra cushioning for your hands and feet so that you feel more comfortable doing the exercise. This will make it easier to focus on proper body position. If you find there is still too much pressure on your supporting knee, try placing a folded towel underneath it.
  • Do not allow your working leg to rest on the ground between reps.
  • Keep your shoulders arched and your core tight – think of pulling your belly button to your spine. This should stabilize your body so that the only part of you moving is your leg. Do not twist your back in an attempt to lift your leg higher. Keep your neck in line with your spine by keeping your eyes on the ground as opposed to facing forward.
  • Keep your leg muscles relaxed and think about initiating the movement from your butt. If you are doing the exercise properly, this is where you will feel the burn. There may also be a slight pull to the outside of the hip.
  • Your foot should be flexed rather than pointed, which means that in the finish position the bottom of your foot should be facing the ceiling.
  • You can progress the exercise to include some additional core work by bringing your knee to your chest prior to lifting it into the air. But make sure to keep the movement slow and controlled to avoid using momentum to help you get your leg in the air.

    Revised Start Position

  • You can also add a strength building component to this exercise by lifting and holding for 30 seconds.

Hip Flexors

Hip flexors are the muscles in the front of your hip that lift your thigh bone up (i.e. so your knee is in the air). A simple exercise to work these muscles is as follows:

  1. Stand straight and lift your right knee into the air, slightly more than 90°. Place your two hands on your raised knee.

    Start Position

  2. Gently push down on your knee as you use your extensor muscles to fight the pressure and keep your knee from moving.
  3. Hold for as long as you can in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but do not go to complete failure. Risk of injury always increases as your muscles start to tire, particularly for these smaller muscle groups.
  4. Relax, recover and switch sides.
  5. Repeat for the required number of sets.

Helpful Tips

  • Stand with your back close to a wall if you are having difficulty maintaining your balance.
  • Keep your core tight and your posture straight and tall. The toes of your raised leg should be pulled up.
  • Think about initiating the movement from the front of your hip. If you are doing the exercise properly, this is where you will feel the burn.

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