How to strengthen core muscles – Form matters!

Disclosure: We may receive compensation from the companies whose products we review if you click through our affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

I have endured a lot of back pain in my life.  You can read all about my story here.  Through the years I have tried so many different approaches to dealing with back pain.  I have finally received some great advice on how to strengthen core muscles and this has been a tremendous help in my recovery.

These are just some of the exercises I do to help build and maintain a strong core.  Trust me, it’s not an easy or necessarily fun process, but I have found it essential to work my core to maintain a happy and healthy back.  This post by Mayo Clinic explains the importance of strong core muscles.

Warm up with some cardioElliptical machine demonstrates how to strengthen core muscles

I start every workout with either 20 minutes on the elliptical or Stairmaster.  I typically alternate these, one day starts with elliptical and the next start with stairs.  I have some nuances that I like to incorporate with these.

I don’t ride the elliptical as most people do.  My head stays completely still, and I start off by not using my hands.  The first 10 minutes or so, I have the machine on a fairly low setting maybe 6 out of 20 and I ride without using my hands and I keep my head level.

This combination of “look, mom, no hands” and keeping my head level really, really works the butt, hamstrings, and quads a lot more than if I bounce up and down and use the handles.  I see so many people pounding away on the elliptical, bouncing up and down and I never really get anything out of that.  It’s so much harder to go without hands and keep the head still.

I sink back on my glutes and keep my upper body straight.  This is certainly not something I was able to do overnight, it took time to build up to this.  During the first 10 minutes, I will gradually increase the resistance.  At the 10 minute mark, I grab hold of the handles and crank up the resistance.

I still keep my head still and sink back into my butt, I think that is the real key to an awesome leg workout with the elliptical.  Anyway, by the time I am done, I am sweating like crazy.  Incorporating the handles is a great way to get the upper body involved in the exercise as well.

Stairs are similar, with the no hands part.  Again, I see people who work on the stairs, arms fully extended on the top of the handrails.  I have tried that and I don’t see any benefit.  I believe the best thing to do is keep your head up, look straight ahead and keep your core tight.  With every step on the stairs, you work calves, hamstrings, quads, and glutes.  Think of it as if you are actually climbing stairs in a stadium, you wouldn’t hold on for dear life as you are doing that.

I see people alter the workout, as well.  Some people do alternating leg raises, where you fully extend one leg behind you and squeeze your glutes.  Another variation is to walk on your tip toes and work the calves more.  My biggest suggestion would be to not use the handrails or try to just lightly touch them if you need to balance.

Goblet squats 

I love goblet squats.  This is a new exercise I have discovered. I never really knew much about goblet squats or had any desire to do them.  Since I don’t do regular squats anymore, this is a fantastic leg exercise.  I have discovered that goblet squats work not only the glutes but my back as well.  This has become one of my favorite exercises to do.  I use a 24kg kettlebell, which equals 50 lbs.  You can also use a dumbbell if you prefer, or don’t have a kettlebell.  As with so many exercises, people will do goblet squats different ways, I will walk you through the way I do them.

Goblet squats demonstrate how to strengthen core muscles

The stance will be with your feet about shoulder width apart and you want to have your toes pointed slightly outward.  The nice thing about the kettlebell is you can grab it by the handle with both hands and swing it through your legs then up to your chest to get in the ready position.

I flip the kettlebell upside down so the handle is pointing down.  Some (maybe most) people will hold the handle of the kettlebell on the sides to perform the exercise.  I prefer to hold the kettlebell upside down with my hands around the meat of the kettlebell.

To me, this is really more representative of how I would hold a goblet.  You know, if I were to actually drink from a giant goblet that required me to hold it this way.

Form is really important with goblet squats.  I always keep my elbows on a trajectory that will be right in line with my thighs.  I squeeze the kettlebell between my hands.  I really feel like this helps to engage my chest, lats, and shoulders.  I keep my head up, finding a point above my line of sight to keep my eyes focused on.  I make sure to squeeze my butt before I begin the downward motion, so I am really focused on my glutes.

I drop down slowly concentrating on squeezing my butt, and squeezing the kettlebell, meanwhile focusing on the spot I picked out as my focal point.  Keep the knees from going over the ankles.  This means I lean back on my heels slightly.  When I get to the bottom of the squat, my legs are parallel to the floor.  I do see some people go below parallel, but I don’t.

Then I really concentrate on pushing all the way up with my glutes.  I feel this squat in my quadriceps, glutes, upper and lower back.  The upper back is more of how I am holding the kettlebell. Goblet quats just really engage so many different muscle groups, and as I said earlier, have become one of my favorite exercises.  I do 5 sets of 20 on this exercise.

Single leg standing row

Another great exercise is a variation of the standing row.  My variation is the single arm, single leg standing row.  I use the Freemotion cable machine, the one with the arms that move up and down.  I set one of the arms about parallel with the ground.  I chose somewhere between 25-30 pounds.

This is an exercise that I alternate sides on.  I start on the right side.  I grab ahold of the handle with my right hand, then step back so that my right arm is fully extended and there is a little tension on the cable.  I then bend my right knee so that my right foot is off the ground a few inches.

Upright row deomstrates how to strengthen core muscles

The goal is to perform a single arm row with the right arm and keep the right foot off the ground.  At full extension, my right palm is facing down, and as I pull the row back, I rotate my hand so that my thumb is facing up.  I tuck my right hand so that my wrist is right below my right armpit.  So my wrist ends up tucked by my right side under the armpit.

I make sure that I keep my back straight and concentrate on pulling with my lats as much as possible.  This works not only the lats, but the quadriceps to keep me balanced, and also really engages my abs.  This is a great exercise for the upper back, and overall core, by engaging the hip flexors, quads, and abs.  I alternate sides with this exercise and I do 5 sets of 20 reps on each side.

Again, these are some of the exercises I do to help build and maintain a strong core.  You can see my other posts here, here and here about other core work that has helped me out.  I hope you will be able to see the same benefits I do from these core exercises.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below and I will get back to you as soon as possible.

Leave a Comment