Activate your core and strengthen your back with this comprehensive guide of techniques to decrease pain and improve spinal health.

Eighty percent of Americans are estimated to experience at least one episode of back pain in their lives. And according to the American Chiropractic Association, the total cost of back pain treatment in the United States surpasses $100 billion annually.

My question: How can this be when most forms of low-back pain are typically treatable with conservative management and specific exercise? As a practicing physical therapist, I would say most, if not all, of my clients respond extremely well to exercise in order to reduce symptoms. Once they commit to exercise and understand the cause of the pain and how to manage their symptoms, it’s much easier to prevent recurrence.

While it’s fun to show off your rectus abdominis muscles (aka six-pack) at the beach, they do very little for the stabilization of the lower back. I’m here to highlight the transversus abdominis (TA) muscle, a deep, strap-like muscle located in the core — one of the only muscles that attaches to the lumbar spine. Therefore, it’s one of the main spinal stabilizers necessary to keep back pain at bay.

The exercises below focus on the TA muscle and support the reduction of low-back pain.

Transversus Abdominis Activation Exercises

The TA muscle wraps around the abdomen between the lower ribs and the pelvis and functions like a corset. The function of this muscle is to stabilize before movement of the arms and legs and is important in preventing deterioration of the lumbar spine and pelvis. You cannot strengthen a muscle that your brain is not accustomed to using. Therefore, training always comes before strengthening.

TA Activation Exercise
  • Imagine a line that connects the inside of your two pelvic bones (front of hips). Think about connecting, or drawing, the muscle along this line as if closing two book covers.
  • No movement of your hips, pelvis or spine should occur as you contract this muscle.
  • Feel just inside the left and right hipbones and cough gently to feel this deep contraction.
  • You should feel a light tension under your fingertips, not a contraction that pushes your fingers out.
  • Hold the contraction for three to five seconds and then release. Breathe throughout this exercise. Repeat the contraction and hold for three sets of 10 repetitions three to four times per day for four weeks.
  • Avoid posterior tilting of the pelvis, bulging of the abdomen, depression of the rib cage, holding your breath, and pressing out your fingertips with a strong muscular contraction (internal oblique holding).
  • Goal: Do 10 sets of 10 holds.

Once you feel comfortable with engaging this muscle in this position, you can begin to progress this exercise in the following ways — in this order of difficulty. Achieve each goal set before moving on to the next exercise.

TA Exercise With Arms

TA Exercise With Arms

Lift your arms off the mat for a three-second count, up and down to 90 degrees, holding this contraction. Gently release after each rep. Goal: Do two sets of 10 reps.

TA Exercise With Marching

TA Exercise With Marching

Alternate lifting your legs off the mat or marching while keeping your pelvis stable and holding this contraction. Goal: Do two sets of 10 reps.

TA Exercise With Arms and Legs

TA Exercise With Arms and Legs

Lift opposite arms and legs for a three-second count up and down, maintaining a braced core without pushing your back down into the mat. Goal: Do three sets of 10 reps.

Tabletop

Tabletop

Begin by supporting yourself with your arms underneath your shoulders, stacked above your wrists and hips at a 90-degree angle, with your weight evenly distributed. Unweight both legs and hold for three sets of 60-90 seconds.

Tabletop With Taps

Tabletop With Taps

Keep both legs unweighted while you gently tap each foot, maintaining a braced core. Goal: Do two sets of 10 reps.

Dead Bug

Dead Bug

Practice a cat-cow exercise to go between the end ranges of lumbar flexion and extension in order to find a neutral spine and activate your TA. Extend both arms and legs off the mat while you extend the arm and the leg of the same side. Take note if you are pressing your lower back into the mat and losing your core stabilization with this exercise. If you are, decrease your reps or scale down.

Begin with 10 reps total on each side and increase up to two sets of 10.

Bird Dog

Bird Dog

Get on all fours and perform the cat-cow exercise to feel the end ranges of lumbar flexion and extension in order to find a neutral spine (flat back) and activate your TA.

Begin with 10 reps total on each leg and increase up to two sets of 10.

Isometric Squat

Isometric Squat

Use isometrics to bring your new core activation skills off the mat and into more functional movement. Because most of us don’t exercise laying down, this progression is meant to be just that: a progression. These exercises are meant to assist in TA activation as you incorporate them into your regular exercise routine.

Begin with two sets of 10, ensuring that you do not sacrifice form.

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If you’re ready to get down, this core program will have your middle looking magnificent in no time!

Sometimes the most difficult part about working your core isn’t training it — it’s determining new ways to punish it. “Shaping an impressive core takes a mix of moves that no one ever does, done in a way that most wouldn’t dare,” says Alec Penix, celebrity trainer and author of Seven Sundays (Howard Books, 2018). These two circuits, designed by Penix, offer the perfect assortment of exercises to work your middle in every possible direction at a pace that will leave you breathless and burning.

Concentrate on doing each exercise with perfect form during the time given. And unless an exercise directs you otherwise, your goal is to perform each move with a two-second up, two-second down pace. “What many people forget is that your core muscles’ primary job is to resist movement, not produce it,” Penix says. “When you rush through a move, you’re forcing your muscles to rely on momentum and work differently than how they’re designed.”

And before each exercise, Penix gives this tip: “Contract your core even before you start a move. This immediately reinforces your posture, stabilizes your back and improves your form so that you’ll reap more results from the routine with less risk of injury.”

If you’re ready to get down, this program will have your middle looking magnificent in no time!

Your Summer-Ready Core Circuits

Perform Circuit A one day, Circuit B the next and either take a day off or repeat each circuit again before giving your core a rest.

Do all four exercises back-to-back for 30 seconds each with 10 seconds or less of rest between moves. After you’ve completed the circuit, rest 20 seconds, then repeat it once or twice more, depending on your fitness level.

To make a circuit more challenging, increase the duration of the work from 30 to 45 or 60 seconds. To make a circuit easier, work in reps rather than in time, and shoot for eight to 15 reps per move.

Scissor Crunch

Scissor Crunch

Lie flat on your back with your hands lightly touching the sides of your head, elbows flared, and your legs extended straight out. Lift your heels about 6 inches off the floor and press your lower back into the ground. Maintain that core contraction as you lift your head, shoulders and upper back off the floor and rotate to the right, simultaneously lifting your right knee to meet your left elbow at the midline of your body. Lower slowly to the start and continue, alternating sides.

Single-Arm Slider

Single-Arm Slider

Put two small towels on the floor, then get into a push-up position with one hand placed on each towel. Center your hands underneath your shoulders and align your head, hips and heels. Brace your core to keep your hips steady, then slide one arm straight out in front of you as far as you can without losing your balance. Pull the towel/hand back underneath you and continue, alternating sides.

Feet-Up Russian Twist

Feet-Up Russian Twist

Sit with your knees bent and your feet raised just off the floor, legs together, ankles crossed. Keeping your spine straight, lean back with your torso back until it makes a 45-degree angle with the floor. Hold a small medicine ball or dumbbell with both hands, extend your arms straight out from your shoulders and brace your core. Moving your shoulders and arms as one unit, twist at the waist and rotate side to side smoothly yet briskly, without losing form.

Side Plank Hip Raise

Side Plank Hip Raise

Lie on your left side with your legs straight and stacked on top of each other. Position your left elbow underneath your left shoulder and press your palm into the floor. Hold a small dumbbell in your right hand and extend your right arm straight up to the ceiling. Press your hips up so you’re in side plank with your head, hips and heels aligned. Keep your right arm steady as you slowly lower your hips down to touch briefly on the floor, then raise them up again to align with your legs and torso. Complete all time on one side before switching.

Plank Jack Leg Lift

Plank Jack Leg Lift

Get into plank with your elbows underneath your shoulders and your head, hips and heels aligned. Brace your core and actively press into the floor with your elbows and forearms as you quickly jump your feet open and then closed, keeping your hips low. Then lift one leg up as high as you can without arching your back and replace. Repeat with the other leg to complete one rep.

V-Crunch and Touch

V-Crunch and Touch

Lie faceup with your legs extended straight and your arms extended up alongside your head. Simultaneously raise your legs and torso off the floor, sweeping your arms up and over in an arc so at the top of the crunch, your hands touch the floor on both sides of your hips. Reverse the steps to return to the start.

Twisting Split-Leg Crunch

Twisting Split-Leg Crunch

Lie faceup with your hands lightly touching the sides of your head and your legs raised straight up over your hips. Open your legs apart into a V, keeping them straight. Press your lower back into the floor and maintain that contraction as you curl your torso up and rotate to the right, bringing your left elbow toward your right leg. (Note: Your legs do not move in this exercise, just your torso). Lower yourself back down and continue, alternating sides.

Side Plank Tuck

Side Plank Tuck

Lie on your left side with your legs straight and your hips stacked, and split your feet for balance. Position your left elbow underneath your left shoulder and actively press down into the floor with your elbow and forearm. Place the fingertips of your right hand behind your ear, elbow flared and pointing toward the ceiling, then lift your hips to align with your head and heels. Hold yourself steady in plank as you quickly draw your left knee into your chest and simultaneously curl forward and try to touch it with your right elbow. Return to the start. Complete all the time on one side before switching.

The Core Facts 

Your abs are tougher than you think.

Even though most muscles need 48 hours of rest to recover and get stronger, your core muscles can actually become weaker if you ignore them. So long as you’re not overtraining and leaving your core so sore that it’s negatively affecting your other training days, you can train it every day. Also, remember to stretch them regularly for improved mobility and range of motion.

There is no “perfect” ab exercise.

Yes, one move may work a higher percentage of certain muscles within your core than another move. However, it takes a variety of exercises to do the job right and get you the midsection of your dreams. Include core moves that work in rotation, anti-rotation, flexion and even extension in your routine for best results. It’s not about quantity — it’s about quality.

It’s not about quantity — it’s about quality. 

So long as you’re using perfect form and are actively engaging your core during each and every repetition, it doesn’t matter whether your muscles are exhausted after five or 50 reps. Also, remember to breathe as you perform the moves, delivering oxygen to working muscles and increasing the duration of time you can work.

Your six-pack is actually an eight-pack.

Your abs are one long sheet of muscle (the rectus abdominis) held in place by three strips of tendons running horizontally, with another strip (the linea alba) running vertically to cut them in half. If you do the math, this makes eight sections. Most people never see all eight, though; it depends on how strong/tight your tendons are and how low your body fat is. Sucking your gut in isn’t vain — it’s smart.

Sucking your gut in isn’t vain — it’s smart. 

Pulling in your stomach (“bracing your core”) as you exercise — or even during the day when you’re not — strengthens your transverse abdominis, the hidden band of muscle that encircles your midsection like a corset and that is key in stabilizing your pelvis and engaging your core. It will also improve posture and give the appearance of a flatter belly.

A strong core makes other activities easier. 

Strengthening your center can help improve your kinetic linking, the transfer of power from your feet to the rest of your body. For instance, when you throw a punch, the power goes from the floor to your feet through your hips and out your fist. The more fit your core is, the easier it is for your muscles to generate force, allowing you to run faster, lift heavier and train longer. 

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Look no further than this do-anywhere workout to define your outer thighs and glutes.

Let’s make this clear: There is no such bodypart or muscle called a “saddlebag.” Like “muffin top,” it’s essentially a made-up word in the fitness industry to describe a place that holds excess fat. For those of you who have never heard of the “saddlebag” many women refer to, it’s the area on the outer part of your upper thigh and glutes that is underdeveloped and holds excess fat.

These simple and effective go-to exercises will shine a spotlight on this stubborn area. It’s important to note these exercises, along with a proper nutrition plan, will really do the trick. The key to these exercises is to focus on holding and squeezing the movement at the top. So if you’re ready to say goodbye to saddlebags, then let’s get started.

Perform the following exercises in a circuit to feel the burn and achieve a challenging workout!

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Strengthen, sculpt and burn all at once with this ab-and-cardio combo workout.

Savvy exercisers know that achieving a six-pack requires a combination of ab-centric resistance training and an intensive cardio program (as well as a clean diet). But can you blend cardio and strength work together in the interest of efficiency? Samantha Carmean, CSCS, SFG, PN, a Tier X coach with Equinox in New York City, says yes. “I came up with an effective solution that allows for actual muscle growth while helping you attain that ‘six-pack’ look,” Carmean says.

Each move in this five-move circuit is done for a two-minute interval, which is parsed out into four rounds of 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest. “Two minutes is the zone where we begin to transition from the anaerobic energy system to aerobic metabolism,” Carmean says. “And the 20/10 [breakdown] allows just enough rest to perform the exercise repeatedly with good form.”

Move quickly from one exercise to the next and complete one to three rounds, depending on your fitness level. Rest two minutes between rounds. “As you build muscular endurance, gradually reduce the 10-second rest and aim to perform the full two minutes straight through,” Carmean says.

Plank Up/Down

Start in plank with your hands under your shoulders and your head, hips and heels aligned. Keep your trunk stable and your hips square as you lower one arm at a time into a forearm plank. Reverse the steps to return to the top and continue, alternating arms.

Side Plank Knee to Elbow

Assume a full side plank, balancing on your left hand and left foot with your hips stacked. Reach your right arm overhead, then bring your right knee and right elbow together and tap them lightly. Extend both back to the start and repeat.

Gliding Mountain Climber

Assume a plank position with your hands underneath your shoulders and each foot on a gliding disc or small towel. Bend one knee and slide your foot toward your hands without lifting your hips or bending at the waist, then return to plank. Continue, alternating sides.

Anti-Rotational Band Hold

Anchor a resistance band at chest height to a stable object like a squat rack and stand sideways to the anchor point, moving far enough away that you feel a pull when you hold the band. Grasp the band handle in both hands, then extend your arms directly in front of your chest and hold, resisting the pull of the band.

Twister

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes forward. Jump and turn your lower body side to side in a twisting action while keeping your shoulders square and your focus forward. 

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Let these five ab-specific moves be your ultimate guide to a strong and svelte core this summer.

We all know abs are made in the kitchen — but they’re also perfected at the gym. Nutrition and fitness are the dynamic duo you’ll need to rock a midriff-baring tank or that itsy-bitsy bikini with confidence this summer. But there’s more to having a strong core than just for vanity’s sake.

“The core determines your posture, power, alignment, balance, control and circulation so that function is optimal,” says personal trainer Jessica Schatz, widely recognized as The Core Expert, who uses her own unique methodology rooted in Pilates and the tools gained from her professional dance career to help clients like fashion mogul Ashley Olsen, NBA star Wesley Matthews of the Dallas Mavericks and members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “If you think of your core muscles as a sturdy central link in a chain connecting your upper and lower body, you will understand that your arms and legs will function best if core muscles are strong and flexible. Physical motion ripples upward and downward to adjoining links of the chain. When you hit a tennis ball, mop the floor, pull open a file cabinet or make any other movement, the necessary motions either originate in your core or move through it.”

Her tips for sexy summer abs include the following:

Stay hydrated. 

Drinking sufficient water boosts your metabolism, cleanses your body of waste and acts as an appetite suppressant — all of which promote weight loss. It also regulates your body temperature and lubricates your joints. In this way, your body performs at its optimal level so you can exercise better, smarter and longer. Plus, you’ll digest food more efficiently, eliminating pain, cramping, dizziness and other dehydration symptoms.

Pro tip: Drink a full glass of water first thing in the morning. Have aluminum or glass bottles to rinse and refill every day so they are ready to go. Keep one in your car, your purse and your gym bag, and refill whenever possible. Always have a full glass of water right before every meal. You’ll eat less, you’ll feel more satiated from what you do eat and your food will metabolize better. 

Full-body movements. 

When it comes to exercise for abdominals, focus on full-body weight movements (think any plank variation) rather than doing thousands of crunches. These are more efficient, burn more fat and calories, and help you stabilize all parts of your body, joints and especially spine to function better through your workouts. That is why functional fitness such as Pilates is great — it is full-body movement starting at the core. So skip the singularly focused arm or shoulder day and instead do squats or lunges while shoulder raising or overhead pressing.

HIIT it and quit it (all that cardio). 

Rather than an hour of straight cardio, do high-intensity interval training — a technique in which you exert maximum effort through quick, intense bursts of exercise followed by short recovery periods. This type of training gets and keeps your heart rate up and burns more fat and calories in less time — more effectively than after a lower impact steady-state exercise such as the elliptical machine or jogging. Ultimately, you work harder, not longer, which is a great timesaver.

Always remember your core.

Besides doing regular core and abdominal exercises (which may currently be part of your workout routine), pull your navel to your spine at all times — even when you’re not exercising. Do it when you’re brushing your teeth, when you’re driving your car, in line at the store — anytime.

Pro tip: Don’t forget to breathe along the way. Every time you finish an exhale, imagine someone pulling a corset tight around your midsection. This will work the abdominal wall while creating “muscle memory.” It also helps keep your spine and posture stable.

The Ultimate Ab Workout

To feel long and lean in no time, do the following moves twice through (or three times if you’re feeling frisky), four to five times per week, along with 15 to 20 minutes of high-intensity cardio. These exercises are designed to target your full body, resulting in a toned butt and thighs, sleeker arms and swimsuit-worthy abs.

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The bikini pro and Olympia and Arnold champion shares her favorite tricks to achieve a head-turning midsection.

Have you heard the phrase “abs are made in the kitchen”? I find this to be 100 percent accurate. Diet plays a major role in unveiling abdominal definition. But if you don’t develop solid muscle in this region of your body, you won’t have as much to show for your healthy eating choices.

Abs come in all shapes and sizes, with genetics playing a big role in their exact form. Some are wide, while some are narrow. Some are symmetrical, while others are “crooked.” These specific traits cannot be changed, but you can work with what ya got! You may naturally have a little extra flesh in the middle, but you shouldn’t lose hope. You may just have to work a little harder. Hey, we all have our strengths, weaknesses and unique beauty!

I try to work my abs twice a week. They can be trained in a short amount of time if you work them out efficiently. There are many bodyweight exercises that can be performed almost anywhere that can engage your core effectively.

Here are some of my top tips for tighter abs.   

Try my favorite ab workout:

Hold a 90-degree “L” on the Roman chair for one minute.

Do 30 reverse crunches using ankle weights.

Do 20 Roman twists (each side), using ankle weights.

Do one-minute flutter kicks on the Roman chair.

Do 10 V-hold-ups using ankle weights and/or small plates.

Repeat the workout three times.

Ready to get abs like Ashley? The Ashley Kaltwaser Challenge will guide you through a fitness and nutrition program that has helped her secure three Bikini Olympia and two Arnold Bikini International championship titles! For more details, click here.

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