Expert trainer Maren Piefer, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, shares secrets to core workouts that work.

By Lara Rosenbaum
November 19, 2008
David Martinez

Developing strong abdominal muscles is key to a sturdy core, but with the swarm of abdominal fitness videos and infomercials out there, it’s hard to discern fact from fiction regarding core training. We asked Peter Francis, PhD, professor emeritus of biomechanics at San Diego State University in California, for answers to common questions about core workouts.

How does core training prevent back pain?

You’d think strong abdominals would simply act as a muscular back brace, but they actually help maintain better spinal alignment and posture, and thus allow for correct movement and less chance of injury.

What’s the best piece of core training equipment?

A stability ball is one of the few pieces of equipment that has a valid scientific basis. Studies have shown it helps build stability while engaging the obliques (the muscles on the sides of your stomach). It also allows you to make basic exercises more challenging.

How often do you need to train your abdominal muscles to build strength?

You use your abdominal and back muscles virtually all day long, so you need to build muscular endurance rather than pure strength. And with endurance, the more you can train, the better. Ideally, you should do 10 minutes of abdominal exercises each day. But even training three times a week will allow you to see improvements.

What are good exercises for training abs?

It depends on someone’s fitness level. Some general recommendations: If you’ve just had a baby, or if you’re an absolute beginner, the Cat/Camel is gentle but still effective. To do it, get on all fours and pull your abs in toward your spine, rounding your back. Next, release and push your belly toward the floor. If you’re an advanced exerciser, try the Bicycle. This move recruits the most abdominal muscles at once. Lie on your back with legs at a 45-degree angle, and crunch from side to side as you ‘pedal’ your knees toward your elbows.

Are regular crunches beneficial?

They are, but there’s a variation that’s even better: Do your basic crunches with one leg straight and one leg bent. Keeping one leg straight relieves pressure on the back. Simply do half of your crunches with one leg straight and one leg bent, and then switch legs for the second half.