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The Best Abdominal Exercises for a Strong Core

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT March 02, 2021 0 Comments

Properly strengthening your core can help prevent a strain in the abdominal muscles. Both athletes and normal, healthy individuals alike should make an effort to build strong core muscles. In this article we’re going to discuss the benefits of maintaining adequate core strength and the best abdominal exercises recommended by physical therapists. 

Benefits of a Strong Core for Abdominal Strains

A strong core is essential for preventing abdominal strains. However, there is a lot more that goes in the core health than just brute strength. Flexibility and activation are equally as important for safe and healthy movements; whether you’re playing sports, working out, or simply performing daily activities. If this sounds overwhelming, it can definitely be worth getting personal guidance from a physical therapist. 

Core Warm-Up

As an athlete or active person, it is essential to get in a good warm and cool down. This is extra essential if you participate in higher impact sports. These important practices help activate the abdominal muscles, and other core muscles, keeping them extensible, fluid and ready for dynamic movement. 

There is no right or wrong way to warm up the core before getting to your higher intensity exercise. The key is to get your blood flowing, heart rate up, and muscles of the entire body ready for what’s next. Some ideas for this include the following:

  • Walking, jogging or running
  • Light cardio of any type
  • High knee marches or running in place
  • Mini squats or lunges
  • Standing knee to chest (or to opposite shoulder)
  • Standing kicks (front, side and/or back)
  • Body weight deadlifts
  • Yoga flows and stretching

Best Beginner Ab Exercises

Weaker abdominal muscles are more common than you think and oftentimes we compensate with the use of other connective muscles and improper form. We’re not saying that you need a six-pack, but focusing on building core strength and actively engaging the abdominal muscles will go a long way.

Follow along with Certified Personal Trainer, Coach Kim in the video below for a quick 10-minute ab workout, then keep scrolling to check out our top 4 favorite abs exercises for beginners.

Transverse Abdominis Isometric Activation

Since abdominal strain most often occurs in the rectus abdominis, the muscle group that runs up and down the trunk (our “six-pack”), having a strong and well-coordinated transverse abdominis (TA) can help immensely. This muscle, also known as the “lower abs,” acts as the body’s own built in corset because of the way it crosses the pelvis and lower belly horizontally. This muscle can be notoriously weak, or delayed in it’s activation, and lead to issues like back pain, feelings of instability, and abdominal strain.

  • Lie on your back with the feet flat on the floor
  • Place your fingers inside your hip bones so that you can monitor whether your muscles are tightening correctly or not, you should feel the muscles harden with each repetition
  • Practice tightening your lower abs by bringing your belly button toward the spine and flattening the belly
  • Attempt to hold your muscles tight for 5-10 seconds while continuing to breathe and keeping the upper body relaxed
  • Repeat for 10 repetitions for 2-3 sets each day 
  • Use this exercise as a starting point for all your other core exercise, when these muscles can be properly activated it will provide trunk support and reduce risk of strain

Double Leg Bent Knee Raise

Once you have mastered proper TA activation, it’s time to test your coordination and start adding leg movement. The beauty of these types of exercises is that you can get a great ab burn with minimal strain because you aren’t actually “shortening” the ab muscles like you would with a crunch or sit-up.

  • Lie on your back with the knees bent and both feet flat on the floor to start
  • Tighten the abs as you just learned in the first exercise above
  • Lift both feet off the ground and bring your knees to the level of your hips
  • Hold for 1-2 seconds and then return both feet to the starting position again
  • The key is to keep the abs tight to prevent the low back from arching
  • Complete 10 repetitions for 2-3 sets total
  • If you cannot control your low back and feel unstable, there are many alternatives to try- such as one leg at a time, either from the floor (like a march) or from the table top position

Bird-Dog Plank

To gain even further coordination with a variety of movements, a bird dog plank is another great option. The abs need to stay tight to minimize rotation of the spine and provide support.

  • Start on your hands and knees with the hands directly under the shoulders and knees directly under the hips
  • Make sure the abs are tight and the back is relatively flat (a straight line) before moving your limbs
  • Lift the left arm and the right leg
  • Reach the arm forward and leg back as far as possible while keeping the abs tight and spine stable- think about getting the hand and foot as far away from each other as possible
  • Hold the outstretched position for 2-3 seconds before returning to the starting position and repeating
  • Complete 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets on one side. Then switch to the opposite side with the right arm and left leg
  • If this exercise is too hard, you can start with only lifting the arm or leg individually
  • With time, you can progress to other exercises in this position such as a plank or side plank position

Anti-Rotation with a Band

Learning to coordinate core activation in a variety of positions is key for optimizing your strength and stability with higher level activities. Here is just one great example with the simple use of a band for a core and abs workout.

  • Shut the center of a resistance band in a doorway at the height of your stomach (somewhere between the belly button and chest)
  • Stand sideways to the band and hold both ends in your hands at the center of your chest
  • Slightly bend the hips and knees as you tighten the abs
  • Then, push both your hands (together in a ball) straight out in front of you as far as possible
  • You will feel the band trying to pull you to one side, use your abs to stay straight
  • Adjust the level of tension by sideways stepping closer or further away from the band anchor
  • Repeat for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets on one side
  • Switch to the opposite side and repeat

Core Exercises with a Balance Disc

If you’re past the beginner stage, challenge yourself by adding a balance disc to basic abdominal exercises like holding plank position or sit ups You’ll feel the difference right away! Give this routine a try.

Medicine Ball Core Exercises

Similar to the balance disc, a medicine ball provides an unstable surface that will require more control and activation of the core to balance. Keep in mind these exercises are much more advanced.

The Importance of Keeping Good Form

Being able to keep good form is an essential building block for good health, allowing the body to properly coordinate movement. This is because our joints and muscles are designed to work in an optimal position that all stems from the core. With poor form, we become susceptible to injury and poor performance as athletes.

When you properly activate the abdominal muscles, pelvic floor, back, glutes, and deep hip muscles, it creates a strong base for efficiently using your limbs.

Here are some basic tips to keep in mind:

  • Assess your abdominal strength and coordination (ask for help from a physical therapist if needed)
  • Train your abdominals to engage correctly with daily activities and exercise
  • Choose exercises that you can keep good muscle control and stability with
  • Unless you are specifically working on spine flexibility, try to keep it in a neutral position with exercise
  • Avoid hyperextending the lower back with exercise and daily activities

Apply good form to all your exercises. You’ll start to notice that the core muscles should engage during most workouts including running, pushups, dumbbell curls, squats, Pilates and more.

Decreasing Abdominal Strains & Pain

Good core engagement is a recipe for being an exceptional athlete and staying active. Now that you are clear on how to get started, you can work on proper muscle engagement and form to prevent and manage injury and pain. If you experience an abdominal strain that involves moderate to severe pain, swelling, redness, bruising and other discomfort, get in touch with your doctor immediately for further medical advice.


Abdominal Strain Products


Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.

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