Beginners guide to Core Exercises: how your core muscles work

Dec 21, 2021

As a PT, I spend a lot of time talking about core muscles, it’s a subject that is far more important than a lot of people realise. Firstly, we’re talking about more than just your abs – a common misconception. Secondly, the core muscles are involved in some way in almost every movement you’ll do with your body. Whether it’s lifting, bending, picking something up or carrying something, understanding more about your core muscles and doing the work to strengthen and protect them will benefit you both inside and outside the gym.

So, let’s look at six things you may not know about core muscles and some of the most useful core exercises for beginners:

  1.  The core works as one unit

Which are the core muscles? You’ve got the abdominals to the front, obliques to the side, around the back the erector spinal muscles, a little bit deeper the QL muscles. Then there’s the TVAs and internal obliques as well.

That’s a lot of different muscles all intrinsically linked in one big interlocking group. The trouble is though, when they’re exercising, people often think about each muscle type individually. They might elect to do sit-ups to strengthen their abdominals, twists for the obliques, side bends for the QLs and so on.

Unfortunately, that’s a really ineffective way of training. It’s far more efficient to choose exercises that work multiple muscles at the same time. All those positioned around the torso. After all, in everyday life we don’t need our muscles to work well individually, we need them all to come together as one powerful integrated unit. So it makes perfect sense to train them in this way.

  1.  Your core muscles are fundamental to the structural strength of your torso

This bit’s a lot easier to understand if you take a look at the diagrams on the video above. But fundamentally it’s a question of physics.

We have intra-abdominal pressure exerting a force outward - in the video I refer to it as hoop stresses as that’s the technical term. In order to overcome this outward force, your muscles contract to create resistance.  The abdominals, obliques, QLs etc. work together, along with those muscles that are much deeper, to form what I like to think of as a carbon fibre unit.  All the muscles create a matrix, crossing over one another. It’s this that gives them the integrity and strength. If they were all pulling in the same direction that rigidity wouldn’t be there.

So, it becomes doubly important that when we’re working these core muscles, we’re doing so with the whole group of them in mind.

  1.  The muscles of the torso are there to resist movement

Let’s start applying exercises keeping numbers 1 and 2, above, in mind.

Start by coming into a plank and then raise one arm. If you’re unsure how to do this I show you in the tutorial video.

When you first try, particularly if you have not worked on your core before, you might find it difficult to stay steady. You’ll probably find yourself wobbling and rotating as you raise each arm and your weight shifts. That’s a sign that your core muscles are not integrating as well as they could be. Of course, they’re working to hold your body up, but as a group they’re not pulling together.

Each time you allow your torso to rotate one way you’re putting emphasis on the muscles on the other side of the torso. To overcome this, concentrate on holding your hips centred, keeping the tension when picking up your arm. You’ll find the entire unit of muscles are having to work harder, creating tension to resist that movement around the torso so only the limbs move, as planned.

Of course this is a great way to work out all the muscles of that core area together. But it will also give you a good sense of how they’re pulling together to create that matrix structure we talked about earlier.

  1.  The hips and the shoulders are there to do the movement

So, with the torso held steady it becomes all about creating movement from the hips and shoulders. Luckily that’s what these big powerful muscles are designed to do, but the steadier the platform you can give them, the more efficient their movements become.

Think about it this way, if your core muscles are having to shift and move around to ‘steady’ you, all the energy you’re putting in is being wasted on unnecessary movement. The more stable you can make your core, the more that energy will be put to good use by your hips and shoulders.

Put simply, the big muscles of the body should be doing the powerful strong movement, while the torso holds the core muscles solid. Watch the video for a useful kettle bell swing exercise that demonstrates this perfectly and really helps get you thinking about it.

  1.  Holding the torso steady allows for faster and more confident movement

Following on from the above, it makes sense that if you can get better at locking everything down in your core, you’ll be able to move more confidently and without fear of injury.

You’ll find further kettle bell exercises in the tutorial video, showing you how to move the weight quickly and repeatedly across your body. It’s a hip to shoulder movement that should allow you to really get some speed up if you’re able to stabilise your core muscles effectively.

  1.  The tension moves as you move

Still with the kettle bell, practise passing the weight around your body. Concentrate on how your body is feeling as you do the movement. And think about where the tension is.

As you pass the weight from hand to hand, you’ll feel a difference in the pressure you’re exerting on each foot as well as which arm is working to take the weight. You’ll feel the tension move around the torso, working the lats, the obliques and the abdominals. You might choose to take the movement down low or up high.  


In order to really begin to stabilise the core and get it working it’s important to select exercises that keep those core muscles solid and allow us to feel the tension moving around as we move. Once you understand better how the core works it becomes easier to think about all the things above when selecting exercises that will be most effective.

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