As a trainer, I often hear people lament that they have a “weak” core, but I’m not always sure what they mean—and I’m not sure they do, either. Is it that they can’t hold a plank all that long? Or they find doing crunches and situps to be really hard or unpleasant? Sure, being able to perform a 90-second plank or 300 situps in a go is impressive enough it its own right, but those feats only tell part of the core’s story.
Fact is, the core—the muscles that make up everything from the tops of the shoulders to the bottom of the pelvis—is so much more than its ability to perform such isolated exercises. The core “helps us do what we do, connecting the four major extremities of the body, transferring energy from upper body to lower body and back and forth,” says Gray Cook, a physical therapist and strength coach and founder of Functional Movement Systems (FMS), an approach to physical fitness that looks at body limitations and asymmetries through movement patterns that the body is designed to do. Because the core is so integral to movement, it therefore makes sense to look at how it reacts to the postures and patterns that it’s involved in every day. “You may have a great core reaction in your running but very poor core reaction in climbing, crawling, pushing up, or planking patterns,” says Cook.
Both he and colleague Don Reagan, a Virginia-based physical therapist and strength coach, are big on evaluating—and improving—core strength through movement. In addition to repurposing a few tests from Cook’s FMS screen, Reagan has a few suggestions for how you might notice weaknesses in your core. Set up your smartphone camera or recruit a friend to film you doing these three tests.
Test #1: Pushups
A pushup is a great way to see how well your core muscles work together as a unit, which is one of the ways it should functionally work to stabilize the spine. But we’re not talking just any old pushup. Take a cue from FMS, and set yourself up flat on your stomach, palms down right under your shoulders. Tuck your toes and press up until you’re in a straight-arm plank. Do this pushup three separate times, then watch your video. What you should ideally see: your whole body leaving the ground at the same time, as if you could draw a straight line from ear to ankle. “When someone does a good pushup, there’s total-body tension,” says Reagan. It’s what Reagan calls having no “energy leaks.” The most common indicators that your core isn’t working harmoniously are sagging hips or a torso that peels up in segments (like an upward facing dog in yoga) rather than as a unit.
To improve your move: Do exercises that mimic the position. Set yourself at the top of a pushup, and alternately lift each hand to tap the opposite shoulder; try walkouts in which you bend forward to place your hands on the floor near your feet, then walk your hands out into a plank, and then back up; or, yes, throw in some standard isometric front planks. Strengthening in this position requires total muscle tension from the shoulders, pecs, abs, back extensors, and glutes in unison.
Test #2: Birddogs
Another move that’s borrowed from FMS, this yoga-esque check looks at balance, coordination, and how well your core stabilizes when your appendages are moving around it—all important in climbing, crawling, and swimming. Come down to all fours, hands, knees, and toes just a hand-width apart. Place a rolled towel across your back, midway down. Simultaneously extend your left arm and right leg, reaching for opposite walls, then slowly bring both back in at the same time, aiming to touch your elbow to your knee underneath your body. Do each side three times. Now watch your video. Did your arm and leg leave the floor at exactly the same time? Did your back stay even from side to side (use the towel as a reference) as your limbs came up? Are you equally steady throughout the movement when you do it on one side versus the other? If no, read on.
To improve your move: Doing this exact exercise—birddogs—in slow, controlled reps is a good place to start. All manner of wood chops—diagonal, reverse, and front—done from half-kneeling or standing are also great for improving core stability. And actually crawling, climbing, and swimming also offer strengthening benefits.
Test #3: A Half Getup
While not on the FMS screen, Reagan likes using the first half of a Turkish getup to see how strategically someone problem-solves getting up off the floor without using one extremity, as well as how well she can control her body under a load—things you could naturally do as a child when playing but may have lost in our desk-sitting adult world. Grab one dumbbell or kettlebell. Lie down on your back on the floor, and hold the weight in one hand, straight up toward the ceiling. Bend the same side’s knee up, foot flat on the floor, and extend the other arm on the floor at a 45-degree angle. Keeping the weight always aimed at the ceiling, roll up onto the forearm that’s on the floor. Next, come up from forearm to flat hand. In your video, if you see your body curl up using the abs, or the straight leg lift up off the ground, you’re relying too much on spinal flexion (like situps or crunches) and not enough on total body coordination, which is much more efficient.
To improve your move: Practice the half getup! Work on keeping the straight leg long and active and engaged. “Pull” with the arm that’s on the ground, gripping the floor with your open hand as you roll onto that elbow, and pushing through the heel of the bent leg’s foot to help you come up to the hand. “It’s similar to training the pushup—consciously taking your focus from isolated contraction to using the full body as a whole organism,” says Reagan. “Think about: What’s the most efficient and effective way to do this? It’s not just to sit straight up.”
Amy Roberts is a certified personal trainer.