How do I strengthen my core to avoid injury?

August 17, 2013

Q: A few years ago I injured my back, and it has never been completely healed to where I am pain free or can do the same things I used to do without getting hurt. I was told that I had to work on my core strength to ensure that I don’t get hurt again. I have since added three different abdominal exercises that I’ll do three times a week as part of my workout. There is no doubt I feel much better, but I still have problems daily. Is there anything else I can do to build strength in my core to help keep my injury in check?

A: First of all, let’s clear something up right off the bat - your core is much more than just your abs. It includes several other muscles in your lower back, hips, obliques, hamstrings and even your backside. Failure to strengthen these areas can result in muscle imbalance and core weakness, setting you up for serious injuries. To improve your situation, you must strengthen all of the muscles mentioned.

To accomplish this goal, simply plug the following exercises into your workouts. Remember, you must do equal work for the muscles in the front and back of the body or you will never achieve the muscular balance necessary to strengthen your core.

Bird dogs for lower back strength

Bird dogs are an effective and safe way to strengthen the lower back, and they can be done just about anywhere. All you need is a little floor space and you’re in business. To get started, simply get on all fours with your hands and knees at shoulders' width and extend your right arm and left leg like a pointing bird dog away from your body. Once you are fully extended, pause for a split second and descend back to the starting position. Don’t allow your body to lean to one side, and you’ll get a great lower back workout. When you finish, repeat with the other arm and leg.

Bicycle crunches for abdominal strength

If done correctly, bicycle crunches are an excellent abdominal exercise for both strength and definition. To perform a bicycle crunch, lie on your back with your hands behind your head, bring your knees up to a 90-degree angle and begin pedaling your legs until they are fully extended while trying to touch opposite elbow to opposite knee. The secret to this exercise is making sure your back is at least an inch off the ground and you’re bringing your elbows to your knees as well as your knees to your elbows.

Side planks for hip and oblique strength

Side planks are one of my favorite core exercises because they hit areas of the body that are hard to isolate, such as the hips and obliques - muscles on the side of the abdomen. To perform a twisting side plank, get in a push-up position with your hands and toes planted firmly on the floor. Slowly lift one arm and twist your feet away from the floor until your entire body is sideways and your hand is pointing toward the ceiling. Pause for a split second, holding your hips straight and parallel to the floor, and then return to the starting position. Complete the desired amount of reps and switch sides, repeating with the opposite arm.

Stability ball leg curls for hamstrings and butt strength

This exercise is a great addition to any program because it effectively targets the butt and hamstrings while requiring balance and stability. To get started, lie on the floor with your heels placed shoulders' width apart on the middle of a stability ball. With your arms at your sides slowly press your heels down into the ball while lifting your hips off the ground. Use your hands to stabilize your body and curl the ball toward your butt. When you have reached full contraction, extend your legs to the starting position and repeat until you’ve achieved an intense burn in your butt and hamstrings.

To strengthen your core, try adding the above exercises to your workout routine, and remember, developing a strong core requires much more than doing a couple sets of abdominal exercises.

  • Chris Antonio is a personal trainer and former world-class weightlifter. He has been lifting for more than 20 years and has trained a wide variety of clients ranging from All-American athletes to the average person trying to get into shape. To send a question to the Ask the Trainer column, email Chris at or check out

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