Core strength and core stability are not the same thing, though even experienced personal trainers and athletes may get confused. Put simply, if the spine is moving, it's a strength exercise; on the other hand, if the spine doesn't move, it's a stability exercise.
Just because you have strong abs, it doesn't mean you've got good core stability and vice versa. It's important that both qualities are at optimal levels for everyday functionality — and to impress with a tight middle. These two tests will help you measure how you stack up in both areas.
Level 1: Standard Plank
Purpose: To test your ability to maintain a neutral spine and resist unwanted motion (also known as core stability). Get into the basic plank position, with your weight resting on your forearms and toes. Your body should form a straight line from your neck to your ankles. Hold this position for as long as you can; time how long you can stay up. If you can hold it for 60 seconds or more, stop and rest for two minutes, then move on to level two.
Try This: Have a friend set a yardstick or long rod along your back. It should rest between your shoulder blades, touching the back of your head and your tailbone. If your body loses contact, stop and make note of your time.
Level 2: Feet Elevated Plank
Get into the same starting position as for the standard plank, but place your toes on top of a bench behind you. Keeping your back straight, hold this position for as long as you can, being careful to not let your head or lower back sag toward the floor.
Nailed the 60 seconds? Rest for two minutes, then move on to level three.
Level 3: Long-Lever Plank
Get into the standard plank position as described in level one, but move your arms forward so your elbows are beneath your eyes instead of your shoulders. If you can hold this for 60 seconds, congratulations: you've got rock-solid core stability! How did you do? Compare your time against our scorecard.
You need a bit of work if . . . you can hold the standard plank for about 10 to 50 seconds.
You're below average if . . . you can hold the standard plank for 60 seconds or more.
You're about average if . . . you can hold the feet elevated plank for about 10 to 50 seconds.
You're above average if . . . you can hold the feet elevated plank for 60 seconds or more.
You're strong if . . . you can hold the long-lever plank for about 10 to 50 seconds.
You've got A+ abs if . . . you can hold the long-lever plank for 60 seconds or more.
If you want to improve your score, include the plank variation that fits your strength level in your workout three to four times per week, holding it for as long as you can and trying to work up to 60 seconds per set.
Got A+ abs? Get even better by doing a single-arm plank as part of your abs routine. Get into the standard plank position, but extend one arm in front of you. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds, then repeat on your other side. Do this two to four times.
Level 1: Straight-Legged Sit-Up
Purpose: To see if you have enough abdominal strength to move your spine in a safe and controlled manner.
Lie flat on your back with your palms resting on your thighs [A]. Gradually sit up, sliding your hands down your thighs as you go [B]. Once you reach the top position, reverse the motion and slowly lower yourself back to the floor. If you can complete it with no jerking and both heels remain on the floor, you're ready for level two.
*Note: If you have lower back problems of any sort, this exercise may not serve you well, possibly even making them worse if not done correctly. If you have any issues with your lumbar spine, get the go-ahead from your doctor first before proceeding with this abs version. Also, for any of these test exercises, always work within your comfort zone, ceasing the moment you experience pain. As Nick Tumminello says, “If it hurts, don't do it.”
Level 2: Sit-up with Arms Crossed
Lie flat on your back with your arms crossed over your chest [A]. Gradually sit up, curling your spine one vertebra at a time [B]. Once you reach the top position, reverse the motion and slowly lower yourself back to the floor. Again, if you can do this without using momentum, keeping your heels on the floor, try your hand at level three.
Level 3: Sit-Up with Arms Overhead
Lie flat on your back with your arms extended over your head [A]. Keeping your arms by your ears and extended overhead, sit up slowly, curling your spine one vertebra at a time [B]. Once you reach the top position, reverse the motion and slowly lower yourself back to the floor. The key with this exercise is to keep your arms next to your ears throughout the movement. This means that your shoulders, neck and head should all move as one unit.
You need a bit of work if . . . you can't do a single rep of level one.
You're average if . . . you can perform level one with proper form.
You're strong if . . . you can perform level two with proper form.
You've got A+ abs if . . . you can perform level three with proper form.
If you want to improve your score, include the eccentric version of level one into your routine twice per week for two to three sets of four to eight reps. Slowly lower yourself one vertebra at a time toward the floor. Each rep should take at least six seconds to complete; use your arms to help you back up to the starting position.
Get even better by doing stability ball straight-legged pikes. Add them into your regular abs routine up to two times per week, doing two to three sets of 12 to 20 reps.