Core Exercises For Beginners, With Modifications & Progressions

Certified Pilates Instructor By Helen Phelan
Certified Pilates Instructor
Helen Phelan is body neutral pilates instructor, intuitive eating coach, reiki practitioner, prenatal/postpartum corrective exercise specialist.
plank

Starting a movement practice is a lot like learning a language or an instrument. It can be overwhelming.

But it's called a movement practice for a reason since we're always learning more and more about our bodies and how to best use them. As for specific exercises, if you're a fitness beginner, it's important to listen to your body—and refrain from trying an advanced pose before you're ready. Doing so won't help you get stronger, and it may even lead to injury.

Luckily, for every exercise, there is always a "regression" or modification to make a movement more accessible and a "progression" to challenge yourself a little more.

To get you moving on your fitness journey, I've put together some of my favorite core exercises for beginners, along with a modification and progression for each—which means you have nine great moves to choose from. Find the exercises that work best for your body and level, and incorporate them into your routine a few times per week.

Toe Taps With Chest Lift

toe tap

Image by Helen Phelan

How to: Lie on your back, and interlock hands behind your head. Then bring the knees to a tabletop chair position. Keep the knees bent at 90 degrees. As you curl your head and chest off the floor, tap the right leg toward the ground. As you lift the leg back to tabletop, return the head and chest to the floor. Maintain neutral pelvis. Repeat on the other side. That's one rep. Complete 10 reps.

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Modification: Neutral Toe Taps

How to: Keep your head and chest down on the floor. Shorten the range of motion—your toes don't need to actually tap the floor for this to be effective; your main concern here should be getting your back ribs to stay connected to the floor as the legs move. Complete 10 to 15 reps.

When to modify: You're in early stages of recovery after childbirth or working with diastasis; if you feel your back ribs popping off the ground as the leg lowers.

Progression: Toe Taps With Chest Lift and Arm Reach

How to: As you tap your right leg down to the ground, extend your right arm straight behind you. As you lift your right leg, return your right hand behind your head. Do the same on the opposite side. That's one rep. Complete 10 to 15 reps.

When to progress: You're able to keep your spine stable, and you're ready for more intensity.

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Marching Bridge

bridge

Image by Helen Phelan

How to: Lie on the ground with the knees bend and feet hip-width apart. Curl the tailbone under to roll up to bridge. Exhale and engage the glutes for support, and press down through the left foot as the right leg floats up to a tabletop position. Pause for a breath, and return the right foot to the floor, without rotating the pelvis. Repeat on the opposite side. That's one rep. Complete 10 to 15 reps.

Modification: Articulated Bridge

How to: Keep both feet planted on the ground and shorten your range of motion. Work on keeping the tail tucked under. Don't put your weight in your neck; stop at the shoulder blades. Complete 10 to 15 reps.

When to modify: You feel pain in your lower back, or you're unable to keep your pelvis level during the marching portion.

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Progression: Single Leg Bridge With Pulse

How to: From the top of your bridge, bring the right leg up to tabletop and pulse your pelvis up an inch and down an inch while keeping the hips level. Repeat 10 times on each leg.

When to progress: You're able to keep both hips at the same height and feel the work in your glutes and hamstrings, not lower back.

Front Plank

plank

Image by Helen Phelan

How to: Stack your hands directly underneath the shoulders, and tuck the tail just enough to keep the lower back from arching. Engage your glutes and step legs straight out to hip-width behind you. Push actively into the floor with the arms while spreading the shoulder blades wide and drawing the belly button toward the spine. Hold for a count of 30 to 60 seconds.

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Modification: Kneeling Plank With Hip Extension

How to: Maintain the shape of your plank, but lower your knees to the ground, keeping the tail tucked under and glutes engaged. Your hips should be in front of your knees, to engage the core. Hold for a count of 30 to 60 seconds. (Optional stability challenge: Engage the glutes, exhale, and float your right leg straight behind you. Hold for an inhale, and return to the floor. Repeat on the left. Complete 10 reps.)

When to modify: Your back is hyperextended (overarched) in plank position, or you feel pain in the lower back; your hips are not level; you're in early stages of recovery after childbirth or working with diastasis.

Progression: Front Plank With Hip Extension

How to: From plank position, engage your glutes, and keep the knees straight. Exhale and float your right leg 2 inches off the ground. Hold for an inhale, and return to the floor. Repeat on the left side. That's one rep. Complete 10 to 15 reps.

When to progress: You feel your shoulders, arms, glutes, and core working together, and you're ready for more intensity.

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