One of the most difficult parts of working out is figuring out where to start. In this post, I am going to walk you through the process of designing the best core workout routine for you. As a guy who has dealt with back problems for most of my adult life, I finally have a much better understanding of the importance of building and maintaining a strong core.
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My back problems started many years ago. You can read my complete story here for some background. In a nutshell, I have mostly been dealing with sciatic nerve issues and have tried a lot of different things for the pain. I have been on pain medication, tried shots, even had surgery. My most recent and fairly traumatic injury happened in 2015.
I was messing around at the gym, doing things that a guy with back problems shouldn’t be doing. I am not in the bus moving business, but I let my ego get in the way of better judgment. Anyway, I ended up with a sprained SI joint (pelvis area) and a blown disc which put me into stenosis. I was bent over at the waist at about a 30-degree angle and I spent months working with a chiropractor, to get back in the upright position.
Core exercise is key for my back problems
When I was finally to a point that I could start to workout again, under the guidance of my chiropractor, it was much different this time. The focus was on more reps, low weight and doing a lot more functional exercise that would really engage my core. I needed to get my glutes and hamstrings stronger as well as my obliques, lower back, etc. Really where I am going with this is my core was weak. It was time to build my core strength so that I can hopefully avoid another situation like I was in.
I am much smarter now…I hope
Also, I am a lot smarter about working out now. I know what my limitations are. I tell you all of this because I needed to develop a plan of action for working out my core. I have been through a lot and I really want to focus on activities that will help me maintain a strong core and back.
That brings me to the point of this post, which is to develop a plan of attack for working out your core. As I mentioned, this post is going to be focused on core exercises.
Before you start an exercise program you need to check with your doctor, especially if you have back problems. I know from experience that certain exercises, or doing them the wrong way, can do more harm than good.
Set goals and track your progress
This is one of the most basic and important aspects of any training program. If you don’t set some type of goals, you don’t have anything to strive for, or really any way to measure your success. Goals can range from the number of sets you do, to how long you can hold a plank. Planks are a good indicator of core stability. If you are starting out and you can hold a plank for 15 seconds, a good goal might be to hold a plank for 30 seconds.
Another goal might be doing 8-10 reps on a side plank with a twist, or doing 2 sets of 8 reps on a side plank with a twist. First of all, you need a baseline to know where you stand currently, then you can make goals based on that. You definitely want to keep track of your goals, that will help to motivate you to achieve them.
How many days per week to workout
This will depend on your schedule and your current fitness level. Ideally, I would say working out your core three days per week is a good goal. If you haven’t worked out in a long time, or your schedule doesn’t allow for that, remember that one day per week is better than not working out at all.
Sometimes you will need to make time to workout. Keeping a strong core is very important, especially if you have back problems, so getting on a consistent schedule is the best.
You do want to allow time for recovery, so you don’t really want to work out every day or multiple days in a row unless that is the only time you can fit it in. Your core needs time to rest and recover. You probably wouldn’t do squats five days in a row, be mindful of that with your core also.
How many sets and reps should you do
A lot of this will depend on your physical state and what exercise you are doing. If you are new to planks, for instance, you can start with 20 seconds and see how you feel. Take a 30-second break and try it again. If this is too easy, you can hold for longer, or do more sets.
If you are going to do cable twists, start with a low weight and try to do 12-15 see how you feel. You may be able to do more weight, more reps or increase the number of sets. I subscribe to doing 100, or 5 sets of 20 on a lot of the exercises I perform. On cable twists, I do 5 sets of 20 on each side. If I am doing swiss ball crunches, I will 5 sets of 20. If you can’t do that many, start with 5 sets of 10. You will have to find what works for you.
There is going to be some trial and error in this process of developing a program, that is why it is really important to write everything down. You will get it figured out in no time. For me, with my back problems, I like to do a lot of reps and low weight, or bodyweight exercises.
You really don’t need a lot of weight to build a strong core. As you advance, you can add variation to your routine as well. For instance, when I do planks, I hold for 45 seconds, rest for 30 seconds. I do 5 rounds of this. I have started to add some reaching into my routine and also some side leans.
How long should you work on core exercises
I would recommend at least 10 minutes devoted to core each time you workout. You can get some good core work in less time than that as well if you are efficient. If you are going longer than 20 minutes, you might be doing too many exercises, too many reps, or taking too much rest.
I would say try to keep it to 10-12 minutes. If you are just starting out, you may be on the low end of the scale, but as you do more and add variation, it will probably be in the 10-12 minute range.
How many exercises should you do
When you are first starting out, you may only want to do one exercise, you can add more as you progress. One thing you don’t want to do is work on too many different exercises in a given session. I would say keep it to 3-4 exercises per core workout session. You want to be able to master an exercise before you add too many variations.
Keep it simple and don’t over complicate the process. It takes me over 5 minutes to just do my planks, then if I add some swiss ball crunches, and cable twists, that’s about my limit.
Learn how to advance and find what works for you
As you start to do core exercises, you will figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. There are some exercises that no matter what, I just don’t feel it where I should. So, in that case, I move on to something else. If you feel pain, don’t do it, especially with back problems. I used to subscribe to the “no pain, no gain” philosophy and that got me in trouble. As you start to advance, you will be able to add variation or try to introduce new exercises. That is a great way to break through a plateau, trying new things.
As I said, there is definitely going to be a learning curve when developing your core workout routine. You will establish a baseline and then you can really kick it into gear from there. Maybe you start out twice per week, Monday and Thursday, concentrating on 3-4 exercises. Do that for a couple of weeks, mastering those particular moves. Then you can either add another day, change up the exercises, add more reps, more sets, etc. If you are consistent and are committed, you will understand what you are capable of doing.
Another factor is how you feel during the exercise, and the days after the core training session. If you are not sore at all, that would be an indication that you can add more intensity (through reps, sets, weight, etc). If you are laying in bed because it hurts to move, then you probably overdid it and need to back off.
Just be very careful and listen to your body, especially if you have back problems. As I mentioned, back problems can be tricky and you want to make sure you are performing exercises correctly so you can build the necessary core strength to help ease your back pain.
I hope this post has been helpful and you can really put your plan into action. I would love to hear from you and see how you are progressing. Please contact me here or leave a comment below and I will get back to you as soon as I can.