The core is the unsung hero of fitness. More than just sculpted abs, true core strength is the foundation for overall health, supporting proper posture, movement, and injury prevention in daily life. Yet the core often doesn’t get the respect it deserves. This article will explore the principles of functional core training – exercises and movements that build real-world core strength beyond gym machines and reps. We also get around to suggesting some of our best exercises to create a strong, balanced core. With a focused, 20-minute functional core routine, you can develop a sturdy center that powers performance in sports, fitness, and daily activity.
What are Functional Core Workouts?
When we say “functional core workouts,” perhaps you think of crunches or planks, but there’s a lot more to it. These workouts are designed to build strength in those crucial muscles we use every day—the ones in our pelvis, lower back, hips, and abdomen. These muscles are essential, working together to help us twist, bend, lift, and maintain balance, making our body operate as one cohesive unit. It’s not about flaunting a sculpted abdomen but about enhancing stability, balance, and functionality in our day-to-day movements and activities. And it’s not just for the athletes. Whether it’s picking up groceries or running a marathon, we can all benefit from a strong core. In essence, these core exercises are the true backbone of our physical well-being, supporting every action and preventing injuries, making them indispensable for efficient and pain-free living.
The Importance of Functional Core Training
Having grasped the essence of functional core workouts, let’s delve a bit deeper, and really hammer home our “Why.” Why is focusing on this seemingly invisible power center so crucial?
Principles and Benefits of Functional Fitness
Functional training is anchored in principles that make our bodies more efficient, resilient, and responsive. It’s not about isolating muscles but about training them to work together, mirroring the way they operate in our daily lives. Embracing functional fitness means fostering better posture, more controlled movements, and enhanced strength that reverberates through our entire body. This enhances balance, coordination, and injury resilience whether you’re exercising, working, or playing.
Why the Core is Most Important
At the center of functional fitness is the core; it’s the central link connecting different parts of our body. When the core is strong, it serves as a solid base, enabling the rest of our muscles to work effectively. The abdominal, back, hip, low back, and pelvic floor muscles are crucial for providing a sturdy base of support. A weak core destabilizes the body and strains muscles during any twisting, bending, or reaching. But a strong, balanced core aligns the skeleton and allows you to move with power and efficiency. By targeting the core through multi-plane functional exercises, you ensure your body can lift, rotate, push and pull with proper alignment. It’s the silent force that keeps us upright, balanced, and moving with purpose, making it the epicenter of our physical existence.
Science-Backed Benefits of Athletes Having a Stronger Core
Having a solid core is absolutely crucial for athletes at every stage of their journey. It serves as the foundation for stability and strength, enabling them to reach their maximum potential. Numerous studies have demonstrated that a strong core not only enhances power output but also enhances coordination and balance. For instance, a 2019 study done college runners discovered that just 8 weeks of focused core training resulted in improved running economy and overall performance times. Building core strength also helps to improve arm and leg functions. A strong core can also lead to stronger leg and arm movements and functionality by improving the efficiency and power of force transfer.
Working on your core muscles has also been shown to be effective in reducing the chances of getting hurt and decreasing the likelihood of falling down. According to a 2021 study released by The American Journal of Sports Medicine, incorporating core strength training into your routine can assist in preventing lower extremity injuries such as ACL tears. In addition, having a strong core can provide protection for your spine and pelvis, which is particularly crucial for athletes who engage in sports requiring intense and repetitive motions. Even light core workouts using TRX can help alleviate lower back pain.
How to Build Functional Core Strength
Building this type of core strength is not about grinding through endless crunches or sit-ups. It’s about embracing a range of strategies and exercises that target the core muscles in a balanced and integrated manner. Think diversity and adaptability. Before we jump into the actual strength training exercises and workouts, here are some general guiding principles that make this type of core work different from regular ab exercises:
Variety of Movement Patterns
Multi-plane motions like chops, lifts, and rotations. This challenges your core in different ways to improve overall stabilization and conditions your muscles in new ways—rotate, flex, extend. Mixing it up not only keeps things interesting but ensures that all the core muscles get a fair share of the workout, leading to balanced development.
Integration and Transfer of Force
The core muscles work together with the muscles of the upper and lower body to create a stable and efficient kinetic chain. Core stability strength exercises should challenge the core to work in sync with the other muscles of the body and transfer force efficiently.
The core muscles are responsible for stabilizing the spine and pelvis during all three planes of motion: sagittal (front-to-back), frontal (side-to-side), and transverse (rotational). These strength exercises should engage your core to stabilize the spine and pelvis in all three planes of motion.
Explore exercises and equipment that use your body’s weight and resistance, like TRX suspension training or stability balls. These tools make the muscles work harder by creating instability, fostering strength, and improving coordination and range of motion.
The core muscles must be able to maintain stability while the body is moving. Functional core strength exercises should challenge the core to maintain stability while the body is moving in different directions and at different speeds.
Best Functional Core Exercises
Now that you’re familiar with the principles and benefits of functional strength training, you have a better sense on what makes an effective core workout. While there are countless exercises to choose from, we’ve rounded up some of our favorites known for their effectiveness in improving daily life and functional movement.
Hollow Hold (progress to Hollow Rock)
This foundational move develops the anterior core, optimizing performance in sports and daily activities, making tasks like lifting and bending more effortless. Elevate the challenge with Hollow Rock as you progress.
How to: Lie on your back and extend your arms behind your head. Lift your legs and upper body off the ground, forming a ‘U’ shape. Keep your lower back pressed to the floor. For Hollow Rock, maintain this position and rock back and forth.
Tuck-Up (progress to V-Up)
Starting with Tuck-Up and advancing to V-Up ensures progressive core engagement, working those abdominal muscles, enhancing stability and balance in every step you take and every move you make.
How to: Start lying down with arms extended behind your head. Bring your knees to your chest and simultaneously lift your upper body, touching your hands to your feet. For V-Up, extend your legs straight and try to touch your toes.
Mastering the Dead Bug teaches control and precision, fortifying your core muscles, aiding in improved posture and reducing lower back stress in daily movements.
How to: Lie on your back with arms extended towards the ceiling and legs in a tabletop position. Slowly lower your right arm and left leg, return to the start, and switch sides.
This exercise not only targets your core but also your glutes and hamstrings, making activities involving hip movement and stability, like climbing stairs and running, smoother.
How to: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet hip-width apart. Push through your heels to lift your hips towards the ceiling, squeezing your glutes at the top.
It’s a fantastic exercise for your obliques, including the quadratus lumborum, enhancing your lateral core strength, and works the deep spinal stabilizing muscles improving side-to-side movements and twists.
How to: Lie on your side with elbow directly beneath your shoulder and legs stacked. Lift your hips until your body forms a straight line from head to feet.
A powerful exercise for strengthening your obliques, Russian Twists assist in enhancing your torsional strength, making rotational movements easier and more controlled.
How to: Sit on the ground with knees bent, pull your abs to your spine, and lean back a few inches while keeping your back straight. Twist your torso to the right, then to the left to complete one rep.
This full-body exercise is a functional fitness gem, improving cardiovascular health and boosting agility and coordination in activities like running or playing sports.
How to: Start in a high plank position. Draw your right knee into your chest, then switch and draw the left knee into your chest, like you’re running in place.
This balanced move strengthens your lower back and enhances overall body coordination, making activities involving bending, reaching, or crawling more comfortable and efficient.
How to: Begin on all fours with wrists under shoulders and knees under hips. Extend your right arm forward and left leg back, keeping your hips square to the ground. Switch sides.
20-Minute Functional Core Workout
Warm-up (3 minutes)
- Light cardio: Jumping jacks or jogging in place.
Workout Routine (15 minutes)
Perform each exercise for 45 seconds, followed by a 15-second rest. Complete two rounds.
- Hollow Hold (progress to Hollow Rock as you gain strength)
- Tuck-Up (progress to V-Up as you advance)
- Russian Twists
- Glute Bridge
- Mountain Climbers
- Dead Bug
- Side Plank (alternate sides each round)
- Bird Dogs
Cool Down (2 minutes)
- Stretching: Focus on your core, back, and hip flexors.
- Deep breathing exercises.
- Ensure proper form to avoid strain and injury.
- Modify the exercises as needed to suit your fitness level and training program.
- Listen to your body and rest if needed.
Optional Modification for Beginners:
- Reduce the working time to 30 seconds and increase the rest time to 30 seconds between exercises.
Final Thoughts on Functional Core Workouts
So, let’s give the core the love and attention it needs. It’s not just about flaunting those abs, but about enhancing how our bodies move and function every day. The entire core is like the control center of our bodies—it’s crucial for pretty much everything we do. Focusing on functional core strength is about moving better, feeling stronger, and living our best lives, from lifting bags of groceries to chasing after a bus.
We hope we’ve managed to light a spark and make you see why the core is so much more than just a “nice-to-have” six-pack. And, with the practical tips and exercises shared, you’re all set to embrace a stronger, more functional core.