You probably know having a strong core is important; it’s the foundation for each movement your body makes. Not only will a strong midsection help you make the most of your workouts, but it will also make it easier for you to complete everyday tasks and avoid injury. But figuring out exactly how powerful your core is isn’t as simple as seeing how many crunches you can perform in a minute.
Instead, trainers suggest these six signs as more accurate indicators that there’s room for improvement:
YOUR POSTURE ISN’T ON POINT
If you find yourself slouching at your desk or catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror only to notice you’re hunched over, that could be an indication your core isn’t working the way it’s supposed to. “Weak core muscles can throw your posture out of alignment,” says Meghan Kennihan, a NASM personal trainer and USA Track & Field coach. “That’s partially because your core muscles aren’t as strong as they need to be.”
The fix? “When you sit or stand, consciously pull in your abs and keep your spine as straight as possible, as if a string is pulling your head toward the ceiling,” she recommends. Though it’s a good idea to do core work at the gym, you can also try this simple core-strengthening exercise when you’re sitting in a meeting, driving or watching TV: “When you’re sitting, pull your navel in toward your spine, squeeze and hold for as long as you can,” Kennihan suggests.
YOU CAN’T DO THE “STAND UP” TEST
One of the quickest ways to test your core strength is to simply sit down on the floor. “Without worrying about the speed of the movement, stand up with as little assistance from your hands as possible,” instructs Brian Nguyen, CEO of Elementally Strong, who uses this test with his clients frequently. If you are not able to stand up without placing your hands on your knees or the floor, it’s likely you’d benefit from some extra core work. “This test is remarkably predictive of core strength, mobility, stability and coordination for all ages,” Nguyen explains.
YOUR PLANK FORM ISN’T QUITE RIGHT
Another telltale sign of core weakness is incorrect plank form, such as sagging in the lower back or the need to spread your feet wide to maintain the position. “The high plank is a great way to test you core stability,” says Brian Schwabe, a board-certified sports physical therapist and
certified strength and conditioning specialist. “In the plank position, your core must be stable enough to limit your lower back from falling into an over-arched position,” he explains. “If you have to spread your feet more than shoulder-width apart, it means your core cannot control a smaller base of support.”
If you’re not sure what your plank looks like, ask a friend or trainer to check your form or snap a photo of you in the position to evaluate on your own.
YOU UNINTENTIONALLY HOLD YOUR BREATH DURING EXERCISES
You’ve probably heard trainers cue to keep breathing throughout an exercise — even if it’s really tough. Well, your core is part of what makes it possible to keep breathing while moving, and being able to do so is a sign your core is working efficiently, according to Nguyen.
“Holding your breath is a quick signal to a veteran coach that you do not ‘own’ a movement or exercise,” Nguyen explains. “As intense as an exercise is, if you cannot breathe, you are in the ‘too much’ zone.”
If you find this happening to you, here’s how to fix it: “Almost every exercise has two consistent points to it, a start and end point,” Nguyen says. For example, the top and bottom of a squat, the top and bottom of a pushup or the top and bottom of a biceps curl. “During the first few reps of an exercise, hold the end points and take 2–3 deep breaths — in through the nose and out through the mouth — at each. By doing so, you allow your core to organize the breathing muscles from the stabilization muscles.” For static movements like planks, simply try taking 2–3 slow, deep breaths while holding the best form you can.
YOUR LOWER BACK HURTS OR FEELS STIFF AFTER EXERCISE
Lower back pain can be caused by many things, but if you have ruled out a back injury, a weak core could be behind that post-workout soreness and stiffness. “When you lack adequate core stability, the slightest difference can place undue pressure on your spine, making you much more prone to injury,” explains Michael Piercy, MS, certified strength and conditioning specialist, owner of The LAB and IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year 2017.
READ MORE > 6 SIGNS YOU NEED TO STRENGTHEN YOUR GLUTES
YOU HAVE BALANCE ISSUES
If you’re having a hard time with the standing series in your weekly yoga class, your core could be partially to blame. “Your core muscles stabilize your body when you move, especially when you make sudden movements like turning or twisting,” Kennihan notes.
To test your balance, set a timer, close your eyes and lift one foot of the floor. Try to balance as long as you can with your eyes closed. Repeat with the opposite leg. “If you can’t hold the position for at least 10 seconds, your balance and core could use work,” Kennihan says. “One way to do this is incorporate more ‘balance challenges’ into your workouts. For example, do weight-training exercises on an unstable surface like a Bosu Ball or TRX or hold one leg up when you do exercises like biceps curls or overhead presses.”