A physio’s top 5 exercises for a strong core

The ‘core’ has been a buzz word in health circles for years. In this Health HQ post, a physiotherapist gives you the lowdown on what the core is, why keeping it strong is important, and her top five exercises for getting your core in good shape.

What is the core?

Tory Toogood is a pelvic health physiotherapist in South Australia. She explains that while there is no fixed definition of the core, it usually refers to the pelvic floor, diaphragm, deep abdominal muscles and the small, deeper back muscles.

“Those four main groups work together in a coordinated fashion to provide us with a well-coordinated trunk that the forces from our limbs can be utilised with and against as needed,” Toogood explains.

“It can also be extended to include the bigger, more superficial back and abdominal muscles – like the ‘six pack’ – but, particularly in a therapeutic sense, we tend to be referring to the smaller, more carefully coordinated muscles.”

Why is it important to have a strong core?

Our limb muscles are strong, so it’s important that they are operating from a stable middle section.

Toogood uses a car analogy to explain: “We’ve got power going to the wheels to drive it along, but … if we had axles or wheel nuts that were loose, as we tried to get more power or speed, we’d have all sorts of problems.”

Having a strong core helps to avoid issues from poorly controlled movement in the trunk area.

Top five core exercises

Keeping your core strong doesn’t have to mean joining a gym or spending hours exercising, Toogood says. These five exercises can easily be incorporated into your daily routine.

  1. Pelvic floor contractions

The pelvic floor sits between the tailbone and the pubic bone, forming the base of the core.

For women, Toogood suggests trying to close the back and front passages, as if stopping yourself from doing a poo or wee.

For men, try drawing the base of the penis in and the testes up.

“Don’t hold your breath or squeeze your glutes (buttock muscles) or tilt your pelvis,” Toogood says.

Aim for 10 repetitions of a 10 second hold, with a 10 second rest between each.

“Around 40 per cent of people do this exercise incorrectly,” Toogood says. “So if you’re unsure – or have any problems with your bladder, bowel or sexual function – it’s worth seeing a pelvic health physio for assessment and advice.”

  1. Single leg balance

Standing on one leg requires organising “your trunk over your pelvis over your foot,” she says, necessitating use of those small, deep muscles. Corrections to maintain balance use muscles in your ankle, hip and spine.

Start with holding as long as you can on one leg and progress to a minute. Then you can add a very small single leg squat, building up to 20 or 30 on each leg.

  1. Wall push-ups

Place your hands on the wall at chest height with your feet about a foot away from the wall. Draw up your pelvic floor and the lower, deep part of your tummy in. With control, move in and out in a push-up pattern.

Change it up by doing the exercise standing on one leg, which Toogood says uses the oblique muscles more. Do some with the elbows close to the body to work the triceps (back of the arm), and some with the elbows wider for the pectorals (chest muscles).

If you’re stronger, you can do these on a desk or bench or go to a full push-up.

Aim for a total of 30 push-ups.

  1. Diagonals

On the floor on your hands and knees, lift one arm forward until it is parallel to the ground. Then lift the diagonally opposite leg up so it is also parallel to the ground. Hold for five seconds. Repeat with the other side.

Maintain control through your trunk by drawing up the pelvic floor and keeping some tension in your tummy.

Build up to 10 each side.

  1. Squats

When done correctly, squats build strength in the gluteal muscles, which are often under-developed thanks to a lot of time sitting.

Stand in front of a chair. Stick your bottom out, then lower it down until the back of your thighs touch the chair. Push back up to standing again.

Aim for three sets of 10 over a day.

Toogood recommends incorporating exercises into your daily routine. For example, do 10 squats when you sit for each meal, and the single leg balance while doing things in the kitchen.

She points out that these exercises are suitable for people getting started. However, if you have trouble doing them, or specific health issues, you might need a different set of exercises to address your problem areas.

See a pelvic health physio for advice, whether you are male or female, especially if you have problems with incontinence, pain or sexual function. “This is what we do,” Toogood says. “Whether it’s bladder or bowel or sexual function, we look after the neighbourhood.”