Ask Stew: Help with Strengthening the Core


You can develop your core without ab exercises by lifting weights, carrying objects and doing full-body isometric flexes like planking. Doing these workouts will build a stronger foundation that will allow you to move freely and hopefully with less pain.

Here is an email from a woman recently diagnosed with a common back issue that develops for many of us as we age:

Hi Stew, I have recently been diagnosed with cervical spinal stenosis and arthritis in my back. My neurologist suggested that I walk a few times a week and keep my workouts low impact. I started doing yoga daily about a month ago and really feel a difference. She also suggested I build my core. Can you suggest an ab routine that works best for building the core without killing my back? I would really appreciate any feedback. Tina

Tina, I’m sorry to hear about the back pain. My advice is to first get cleared through a physical therapist and listen to their guidance about which exercises can be done and which should be avoided in your situation.

As a general note, yoga is a good foundation builder that assists with general flexibility, balance. and core strengthening. Some yoga exercises could be painful, so listen to your body and avoid those poses or movements.

You should think of the core as a system, not just ab exercises. Abs are only 20% of the core. Consider the lower back, middle back, upper back, hips and shoulders as part of the core system. Doing exercises that engage all of the above is going to build the foundation of core strength you need to move freely and without pain.

I prefer to warm up well with non-impact cardio like biking, rowing, elliptical or swimming. I go for walks as well. These forms of cardio will be a good way to build up your heart and lungs while avoiding the impact pains associated with running.

You also need resistance training. Confirm with your physical therapist the types of exercises you should start with and build up to. Think of this as a journey where you will see progress over time and do not start out too hard in the beginning.

Some of My Favorite Core Exercises

The PT Reset Circuit

Most of us focus on training the front side of the body, including chest and abs. Here is a core circuit that helps balance that out by working the upper backside of the torso and the lower back muscles. The exercises stretch the front side of the torso by flexing the back side of the torso. By using isometric flexes of the lower back, these exercises are relatively safe for most people whether they’re active or inactive.

Repeat 2-3 times

Reverse push-ups: 10-20

Birds: 10-20

Arm haulers: 10-20

Swimmers: 1 minute 1 minute

Side plank (right side): 1 minute

Plank: 1 minute

Side plank (left): 1 minute

Dirty Dogs: 10-20 per leg

Donkey kicks: 10-20 per leg

When in doubt, a variety of plank poses give you quick and safe exercises that work the entire core system. Use your knees at first if you need to, and eventually these classic yoga poses will serve you well.

Another tool that offers a wide variety of exercises is the TRX, which forces the user to engage the core muscles regardless of the movement. Using the TRX for the plank pose variation takes the challenge to new levels (see favorite TRX core exercises).

Suspension training forces you to use your core for simple exercises like squats, rows, triceps extensions and lunges because of the required forward, backward or sideways leaning of the body.

When addressing the core, you can mix in a wide variety of torso exercises throughout your workout. You can do the classic ab exercises, but don't just focus on crunches and sit-ups. Think about hip mobility, shoulder girdle movements, lower-back exercises, upper-back exercises and stretches.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

Want to Learn More About Military Life?

Whether you're thinking of joining the military, looking for fitness and basic training tips, or keeping up with military life and benefits, has you covered. Subscribe to to have military news, updates and resources delivered directly to your inbox.

Story Continues
Military Fitness