Healthy Living YMCA Health and Fitness

Ask a Trainer: The top 3 exercises for a strong core

A Y instructor guides a group fitness class through planks

Delving into the world of fitness and nutrition can feel overwhelming. How long should a cardio workout be? How much protein do you need? How do you know if your technique’s decent? We want to take the guesswork out of your healthy living routine so you can make the most out of your time at the gym. So we asked Paul, a personal trainer and group fitness instructor at the Toronto West End College St. YMCA, to answer some of your most frequently asked fitness questions. This week, he’s giving step-by-step instructions that will help you build the strong, toned centre you’ve always wanted:

I’m not one for making blanket generalizations, but I feel confident saying that everyone wants a strong, defined core. Along with enhancing your physique, a well-trained core helps with maintaining proper posture, balance, and stability. Another plus: it keeps your lower back healthy.

A somewhat vague term, your “core” is made up of several muscles, with the rectus abdominus — the ever-so coveted “six pack” muscle — being the star of the show. But of course, behind every star is a supporting cast without whom nothing would get done. The obliques, transverse abdominis, and spinal erectors all play essential roles in a functional core. This is why sit-ups and crunches can’t cut it alone; when it comes to core training, you need a multi-pronged attack to ensure you hit all the key muscles groups.

Here are three of my favourite core training exercises. The first two should be simple enough for anyone to incorporate into their routine; the last, well, that one’s a little more advanced. Take your time and work up to the top end of the recommended sets and reps.

1. Single Leg Lowering

  • Lie flat on your back with your legs straight and arms at your side.
  • Lift both legs until there’s a 90-degree angle (or close to that) at your hips.
  • Slowly lower one leg until your heel is just above the floor; return leg to starting position, then repeat with the opposite leg.
  • Bend your knee to make the exercise easier; straighten your leg to make it harder.
  • Ensure that your lower back remains flat against the floor throughout.
  • Perform 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps per leg.

2. Pallof Press

  • Attach a stirrup handle to an adjustable cable machine, setting the handle at chest height (you can also use a resistance band instead of a cable machine).
  • Stand perpendicular to the cable unit with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
  • Grasp the handle (or band) with both hands directly in front of your chest.
  • While holding your glutes (that’s your butt, FYI), slowly extend your arms in a straight path. Once your elbows are locked, hold for a couple of seconds then slowly pull your arms back to your chest. Pause, then repeat.
  • Assume a wider stance to make the exercise easier; go more narrow to make it harder.
  • Perform 2-3 sets for 20-45 seconds each side.

3. Body Saw

  • Assume a traditional plank position (face-down on the floor, forearms planted under your face, hips elevated in line with your shoulders), but place your feet on a towel, a pair of exercise sliders, or secure them in a low-hanging TRX unit.
  • Squeeze your glutes together and pull your kneecaps towards your hips to create tension throughout your lower body; pull your shoulder blades towards your hips and brace your abs like you’re trying to deflect a punch to create tension throughout your upper body.
  • Keeping your hips elevated, push your arms into the floor while pushing your torso backwards. The idea is to make your body as long and straight as possible without your hips sagging. For most folks, one or two inches will suffice. Once you’ve reached your end point, pull your elbows towards your hips until you’re back in starting position.
  • This exercise only really works when performed on a tiled, linoleum or wooden floor, unless you’re using a TRX, in which case it can be done on any surface.
  • Perform 2-3 sets of 15-30 seconds.

Work these three exercises into your weekly routine to start building the strong, toned core you’ve always wanted.


Paul graduated from Humber College’s Fitness & Health Promotion program (with honours!), earning a certification in personal training and group fitness from the Ontario Fitness Council along the way. His training specialties are body weight training, strength training for older adults, and plant-based nutrition.

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