4 Great Ways to Work Your Core

'Core' has been the big buzzword for the past few years, and there's a reason for it. The thin, flat sheets of muscle that surround your trunk are both cosmetic and athletic. They are used in every move you make, whether walking, running, snowboarding or surfing.

Strong core muscles help prevent lower back pain; allow you to make powerful athletic moves, help pull in your gut, and create good posture. They are also a major factor in balance; the stronger your core, the less likely you are to slip and fall. It's easy to see why everyone is paying so much attention to these muscles.

These trunk muscles surround the torso in layers. The deepest layer of the abs is the transverse abdominal muscle, which acts like a wide belt to support the internal organs and help the breathing process. The top layer of the abdominals is the rectus abdominus muscle, which, when built up, gives the "six-pack-abs" look.

But the stomach area is only one part of the core. Doing only ab work will leave the rest of your trunk weak and subject to injury. A true core workout also includes the sides of the trunk and the back.

Whether you're an athlete or a couch potato, working your core will make your life better. Here are four great ways to work your core without having to go to a gym. The only equipment you need is a pair of dumbbells and a balance ball.

Exercise #1

Hold the pair of dumbbells on your shoulders, thumbs down on the highest part of your shoulder. Sit up straight and tall, don't allow your lower back to curve in. Slowly twist as far as you can to one side, then the other, turning at the waist. Move your entire torso as a solid block, don't bend at the chest.

This works the side trunk muscles, mostly the obliques. Do 10 reps for each side.

Exercise #2

Place the balance ball so that you can lay with it under your hips, while hooking your heels under a sturdy coffee table or chair. Your legs should be straight, in line with the ball or slightly lower. Cross your arms over your chest. Bend your upper body to the floor, then slowly lift it up in line with your hips. Don't lift higher than your hips.

This works the spinal erectors, two columns of muscle beside the spine. Strong spinal erectors help prevent lower back pain. It also works the glutes. Do 12 reps.

Exercise #3

Lay on the floor, with your calves on top of the balance ball and back of the thighs against it. Reach towards your toes, lifting your torso. Keep your neck and head in line with your torso, don't bend them up.

This is a hard core crunch; it works the abs. Do as many reps as you can.

Exercise #4

Get on your hands and knees, then walk your hands forward so that you're in a push up position and your thighs are at a 45 degree angle--but still on your knees. Keeping one arm straight, lift the other arm up and back so your fingers point to the ceiling. Bring that arm back down and lift the other arm.

This works all your core muscles. Do 10 reps for each arm.

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