Endurance, balance, and technique are all paramount when it comes to working out on cardio machines, but there’s one other thing that can completely change your workouts—and it doesn’t get targeted during sprints or peddling. It’s your core strength. Core strength benefits all types of cardio workouts, from running to the elliptical to the stair climber. To help explain, we tapped Aaptiv trainer and health and wellness coach Jaime McFaden. Read on to learn why your core is a large contributor to cardio, plus some strengthening moves you can tack on to any cardio routine.
Why Core Is Crucial
While a cut core is the goal of many gym goers and fitness lovers, these muscles aren’t purely for aesthetics. In fact, your core is your body’s entire support system—it’s involved in practically every movement you make. “Having a strong core is imperative to overall health and endurance. Your core is what keeps you stable and balanced,” McFaden says.
This extends to well outside the fitness space, as it affects your posture and likelihood to experience back pain and muscle injuries. The core muscles—rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, external obliques, and more—provide major support to your spine and pelvis. They even connect your upper and lower body, making it possible to transfer weight and forces. This affects a wide range of movements, from picking up a package to swinging a golf club to even sitting at your desk for long periods of time (seriously). In short, strong core muscles create a stable base for the rest of your body.
That stability, as you’d expect, plays heavily into cardio activities. “When you are running or performing cardio exercise, all of your movement radiates from the center of your body,” McFaden explains. Having strength in this area can noticeably improve your pace, stride, and speed and, more importantly, decrease your risk of pain and injury. Doing core workouts will train the muscles in your abdomen, lower back, pelvis, and hips to work together, therefore improving every other form of exercise you do.
You can tack on the following moves to any cardio routine, no equipment required. So drop to the floor, brace your core, and get ready to feel the burn.
“Planks are my favorite way to train the core,” McFaden tells us. “You can work deep within the muscles and strengthen from the inside out.” We’re not alone in our love for the move, which has been a classic for as long as fitness devotees can remember. Perhaps that’s because while it’s simple to execute, the plank targets all major core muscle groups at once. This includes your transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, external obliques, and glutes—yes, they’re part of your core. Many plank variations exist (most don’t even need equipment), making it easy to customize and include them in a post-cardio core routine. McFaden recommends a minute of each of the following, but you can increase or decrease that time to match your fitness level.
One of the most common plank methods, this variation places your forearms, rather than your palms (as you’d see in a push-up), on the ground. In this case, the move focuses entirely on targeting your core and takes away the element of holding yourself up.
To perform, place your forearms on the ground, keeping your elbows in line with your shoulders. You can either clasp your hands together or keep your palms flat. Prop yourself up onto your toes so that your body forms a straight horizontal line. Make sure your back isn’t sloping downward or upward. Brace your core, and hold in place.
To target your obliques, transition swiftly into a side plank. From your forearm plank, lean onto the right side of your body. Your right forearm should be supporting your upper body, while your left foot stacks on top of your right foot. At this point, your body will form a diagonal line. Rest your left hand at your hip or upper leg (just make sure it isn’t moving around). Brace your core, and hold in place. After one minute, come back to a forearm plank and then transition into a left-side plank. Hold for the same amount of time.
As the name suggests, this plank variation is the reverse of the standard plank. Most often seen in yoga, it targets your core, glutes, hamstrings, and posterior muscles (those along your backside) simultaneously. It also aids in spinal stabilization.
To perform, begin by sitting on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. Place your arms slightly behind you and outside the hips, fingers pointing toward your body. Pressing your hands into the ground, lift your hips, lower body, and upper body off the ground so that your body forms a diagonal line. Point your toes as you keep your arms and legs straight. Keep your gaze up toward the ceiling and your chin pointing comfortably upward. Imagine pulling your belly button into your spine, and squeeze your core. Hold for one minute.
Once you’ve mastered stationary plank variations, begin to include planks that involve moving. Doing so further tests and improves your core stability while likely working other large muscle groups throughout the body. The plank jack, for example, targets every bit of your core that a normal plank does, but it also raises your heart rate and works your leg muscles.
If you’ve never attempted plank jacks, start with the beginner version. Bring yourself into a plank—straight arms or forearms will work. From here, bring your left foot out to the side and then back to starting position. Next, bring your right foot out to the side and then back to starting position. Repeat this stepping motion. Once you’ve got that down, try a full plank jack. Instead of sidestepping, jump your legs out to both sides at the same time (like a jumping jack) and then jump them back together. Don’t sacrifice form for speed! Attempt 20 plank jacks to start, and then adjust that number according to your fitness level.
Another core-targeting classic, the mountain climber also focuses on stability and getting your heart rate up. Not only does it hit your abs and glutes, but your upper body also gets a great workout while holding you up in position (multitaskers, rejoice).
To perform, bring yourself into a traditional plank with your arms straight and palms pressing into the ground. Make sure your shoulders are lined up over your hands. At this point, all your weight should be on your toes. Squeezing your core, bring your right knee in toward your chest, with your foot hovering just above the ground. Return to starting position. Then bring your left knee toward your chest, and return to start. Repeat by alternating sides. Quicken your pace so that it almost feels like you’re jogging in place (while in a plank, of course). Keep up the “jog” for one minute.
V-ups have long been a benchmark of core strength. The move, which consists of lifting your body into a V shape, requires you to support both your upper and lower body using only your core muscles. While planks are incredible when it comes to building strength in this area, V-ups test you further by having you lift other parts of your body. This improves your overall stability, core strength, and even your leg strength.
To perform, begin by lying on your back on the floor, with heels together and toes pointed. Keeping your legs straight, lift them off the ground as you raise your upper body off the ground. Brace your core as your hands reach for your toes. Hold the V position for ten counts before slowly lowering yourself back down to starting position. Repeat. Attempt 20 V-ups to start, and then adjust the number to your liking.