As much as I dreaded the annual fitness assessments in gym class (forever haunted by the ping from the running tests), there is something to say for testing your strength. Like most things, fitness is a journey. Fitness assessments act as a baseline to check in on your progress. Karen Litzy, PT, DPT, spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association, says a core strength test is good place to start.
“Having good core strength is important to perform most daily activities,” says Litzy. “For the most part, every time you push something, pull something, lift something or rotate through your trunk, so pretty much all tasks of daily living, you need your core muscles to help stabilize your trunk so you can freely move your arms and legs.”
Litzy recommends testing your core strength every few months with the following tests.
How to test your core strength
Start on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Slightly tilt your pelvis so your low back is closer to the floor, taking out the arch in the low back.
1. Can you drop one knee out to the side and pull it back in without the back arching up? Do this on both sides.
2. Can you slide one heel out (keeping the heel on the ground the whole time) and then slide it back in without the back arching up? Do this on both sides.
3. Can you slide one leg out and in with the heel up off the ground without the back arching up off the ground? Do this on both sides.
“The reason you want to keep the pelvis tilted and the low back close to the ground is because this shows you have good coordination of your abdominal muscles to control your trunk with movement,” says Litzy. “Your rectus abdomens and external oblique muscles need to coordinate and work together to stabilize the low back and the abdomen during the leg lowering procedure.”
If you can’t keep your low back flat to the ground during this core strength test, Litzy said it could mean a few different things. “It could mean that your abdominal muscles are not working together to stabilize your low back and torso, you may have weakness in your abdominal muscles, or you may be over-recruiting your hip flexor muscles to complete this task,” she says.
To increase core strength, Litzy says she recommends any variation of a plank, the pilates roll up, the pallof press, and the wood exercise. Find tips for doing each of them correctly below.
Increase your core strength with these exercises
To do a plant the right way, keep your hands stacked under your shoulders, your neck in a straight line with your spine, your hips lifted (without lifting above your shoulders), your feet flexed and shoulder width apart. Press up and out of the ground while engaging your glutes.
2. Pallof Press
The pallof press isometrically works your core by forcing it to resist against rotating. Secure a resistance band to a sturdy surface like a pole or column in line with the base of your sternum. To begin, stand with your feet hip width apart holding the end of he band in both hands. There should be enough tension in the band that when you move it, you feel the urge to twist in towards it. Keeping your core engaged and shoulders relaxed, press the band out, and bring it back in.
3. Pilates Roll Up
To begin, lie on your back with your legs straight and feet together. Engage your abdominals as your reach your arms overhead and shoulder-width apart. Inhale as your life your arms to a 90 degree bend as you flex your feet. Lift your head and exhale as you roll all the way forward keeping your core engaged and, feeling a gentle stretch through your spine. Inhale, point your toes and roll back down toward the floor.
4. Wood Chop Exercise
Grab a dumbbell (or anything heavy that you have on hand) and step back into a lunge with you back toe popped and your spine neutral. Begin by rotating down towards the front knee with your chest facing down without rounding through your shoulders. Pivot your feet as you twist to face the other direction, while lifting the weight overhead. As you pivot, make sure that he back heel plants down before you lift the front heel.