The Best Way to Get a Stronger Core and Better Posture, According to a Physical Therapist

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With COVID-19 forcing most of us to WFH (aka work from home) for the foreseeable future, we're also transitioning to WOFH (aka working out from home). Gyms and studios are shutting their doors until further notice, and most of us are live-streaming workouts, where you can immediately go from bed to workout routine with some of the buzziest trainers.

Chances are your new home workouts involve some core moves, but before you spend hours crunching and doing sit-ups until you're blue in the face, there's something you should know. Your core is not two-dimensional.

Let me say it again for the people in the back... your abs are not 2D, they are 3D, which means you need to target all the areas around them, not just the front (which is prob what you're doing if you do crunches and sit-ups and call it a day).

Just ask Erin Policelli, a physical therapist and founder of Stretch Kinetics in Atlanta. "Most people don’t realize that the core is made up of the transverse abdominis, the pelvic floor muscles, the diaphragm, and the multifidi—which are spinal [back] muscles. So if you really want to work your core you have to include back muscles," she says.

According to Policelli, the way this works is to think about the core and back muscles like they are in a long-term relationship: they need each other. "A main role of the back muscles is to keep the spine erect or extended. In contrast the abdominal muscles are their antagonist, and act to flex the spine. If you think of the constant force of gravity that is pulling us, the spinal muscles are needed to constantly work to keep us upright," she says. That's why having a strong core can help prevent back pain, and you also need a strong core for good posture and support.

Policelli says if you're not working your back muscles intentionally, and only working the front of the core (the area you think of as the "six pack") you may be doing a disservice to your posture too. "Overworking the abdominal muscles and ignoring the back muscles could lead to a posture that is too flexed." And with most of our postures already taking a hit right now from quarantine-induced couch time, that's less than ideal.

If there's anyone else that knows about how to get good posture, it's dancers. Sam Ostwald is a dancer and trainer at DanceBody in New York City and says dancers intentionally condition their backs—to support them in dance, yes, but also for everyday life. "Dancers are constantly aware of their posture, which activates their back muscles, [and] in turn, supports their arms and core. Most of us spend all day hunched over a computer, so strengthening your back muscles helps to bring your body upright, naturally improving your posture over time," she says.And even if you don't dance, a strong back can support you in other exercises like running or spinning. "It also helps with stability and balance when performing other exercises because good posture and an engaged core work together to support you," Ostwald says.

If you are lost when it comes to targeting those back muscles, Ostwald breaks down some moves you can try at home below. These moves give you the best of both worlds: They target the back muscles and the entire core all at the same time. Take that, crunches.

4 exercise moves to target the back and core for better posture

"The back is part of your core, they aren't separate entities. That's why as dancers, we call our back muscles ' 'The dancer's six-pack,'" says Oswald. "These moves will target your back and core muscles at the same time. They are designed to be completed in a sequence—each one builds on the other. Do them as a combo on one side, and then repeat on the other."

1. Back extension on the diagonal
Starting on all fours, extend your right leg back behind you, reaching your foot out diagonally away from your body. Extend your left arm out on the diagonal, creating a long line from your right leg to your left arm. Simultaneously lift your leg and arm up maintaining the diagonal line and tap your toe back down to the ground, lightly. Repeat 24 times.

(Modification: Lift the arm and leg only slightly or keep both hands on the mat and focus on the leg lift.)

2. Back extension with foot grab
Hold your right leg and left arm up in the same position from the last move. Bend your right foot toward your butt and reach your left hand behind you to meet your right foot. Don't let your knee drop down toward the ground. Return to start and repeat 24 times.

(Modification: Keep your right leg straight out and lift it slightly on reach rep instead of bending it back. Reach your left hand behind you and then return it forward in front of you to complete a rep.)

3. Back crunch and tap back
With your right leg still bent, move your right knee in towards your chest and tap your knee with your left hand as you crunch. As you release the crunch and your leg goes back, reach your left arm back to tap your foot behind you. Repeat 24 times.

(Modification: Tap your knee with your hand and then release the leg back straight out and repeat; don't do the second part of the move.)

4. Side crunch to extension
Shift your weight to your left hand and raise up your right arm toward the sky, opening your chest (almost like a modified side plank position). At the same time bring the right knee in toward your chest. Then extend the leg straight back and return your hand to the ground. Repeat 24 times.

(Modification: Keep both hands planted, crunch your right knee toward your shoulder and extend it back.)

Finish the move sequence with a stretch—sit back into a child's pose, reach both hands towards the left diagonal to stretch your back. Repeat everything on the other side.

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