Q. What’s the best way to work out your core muscles?
A. Strengthening the “core” muscles of the abdomen and lower back can help improve posture and balance, and reduce injury. “There’s a vast array of things that people recommend,” says John Mayer, a biomechanical and chiropractic researcher at University of South Florida, yet there hasn’t been much research to support one exercise over another.
He and graduate student Jason Martuscello recently led a systematic review of studies that measured muscle activation in three core muscles during exercise. The review, published in the Journal of Strength Conditioning Research, concluded that full sit-ups were not best for activating core muscles. Sit-ups also strain the lower back, Mayer says, raising the risk of injury. Other exercises specifically designed to target core muscles were better, including the plank pose, bridge pose, and isolated crunches. There was one exception: Exercises performed on stability balls didn’t outperform sit-ups.
Surprisingly, Mayer says, “whole body exercises with or without weights are at least as effective as the core stabilization exercises, and in some cases even better.” Movements like squats, lunges, dead-lifts, and exercises with free weights activate core muscles effectively, Mayer says, and “you get more bang for the buck.” Questions remain how core exercises might help sports performance or reduce injuries, but for simply strengthening the muscles, if you’re already lifting weights you may not need to blast those abs.