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How to build a better core
Your core is more than just your abdominals — it also involves your hips, back, and even your shoulders. To strengthen your entire core, take a loaded carry walk.
Your core is the stable part of your body that helps make everyday movements more efficient and safe — like whenever you reach, carry, walk, bend, or twist. A strong core offers other health benefits as you age in addition to proper movement (see "Get more from your core").
Some floor exercises like the plank and superman poses are great for engaging your core muscles. A plank pose is where you hold a push-up position — with straight arms or resting on your forearms — for 10 to 30 seconds.
With superman, you lie facedown with arms extended overhead, and you lift legs, shoulders, and arms off the floor simultaneously and hold for two to three seconds.
Get more from your core
Core strength has far-reaching benefits. For instance, significant weakness in core musculature may contribute to a forward head posture and an increase the upper back's curvature, which can trigger neck and shoulder pain. Sore knee or hip? Core weakness can be the main contributor. Your core also is one of your biggest protectors from a back injury. Core strength is also crucial for fall prevention. "Our bodies constantly have to adapt not only to different surfaces, but different weighted loads," says Eric L'Italien, a physical therapist with Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Center. "Adequate core stability and strength can prepare you to better react to these changes and keep you from losing your balance and stumbling."
Increase the load
But if you want a different core workout, consider walk-and-carry exercises, says Eric L'Italien, a physical therapist with Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Center. He calls these moves "loaded carries" because you hold weights, such as dumbbells or kettlebells, while walking.
"Carrying a heavy object while you walk teaches you to brace your core, which engages much of your entire core musculature, including your shoulders, back, and hips," says L'Italien. Loaded carries also can improve everyday movements like holding and carrying groceries, moving furniture, or rising out of bed.
Hold and stroll
Here are three easy-to-do loaded carries to try. You can perform them together as a core-only workout or add one or more to your usual exercise routine.
"Do them before your regular workout to make your workout more challenging, or afterward, if you want to make the loaded carries feel more strenuous," says L'Italien. (If you're not already doing strength training, or you have a chronic health condition, first check with your doctor.)
Farmer's carry. Stand tall and hold either a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand. (Begin with a moderate weight, like the amount you use to do biceps curls.)
Keep your arms down at your sides. Engage your core muscles by taking in a deep belly breath and then blowing it out while you tighten your abs. Walk for a minute. (You mimic a farmer carrying pails of milk, hence the name.) Continue to breathe throughout the carry, maintain proper posture, and try to keep the tension in your abs as you move. Rest for 30 seconds, and repeat until you've completed two or three sets. "If it feels easy, extend the walking time, or add more weight," says L'Italien. "If it's too difficult, shorten the walking time to 30 seconds or reduce the weight."
Cross-body carry. This is performed like the farmer's carry, except you keep one arm straight overhead with the other hand down at your side as you walk. After you have completed your walk, rest for 30 seconds, switch hand positions, and repeat. This completes one set. Do two or three sets.
"The slight weight imbalance will challenge your core in different ways," says L'Italien. If holding the weight overhead is too hard, keep it at shoulder level. Adjust the weight and walking time, as needed.
Suitcase carry. This is also done like the farmer's carry, except you hold a weight in only one hand while your other hand is free. After you have completed your walk, rest for 30 seconds, switch the weight to the other hand, and repeat the walk to finish one set. Do two or three sets.
"With all the weight on one side, it forces you to work harder to maintain a neutral position so you don't lean while you walk," says L'Italien. "This helps to ensure symmetry in your core strength and protect your back when carrying heavy or awkward objects to one side."
Image: © FreshSplash/Getty Images
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