The first faint chill of the changing season can already be felt. The time to make your body ready for bathing-suit days has passed. But that’s no reason to let your core get flabby. When it comes to this important section of the body, it’s not about looks, but about function. The “core,” the part of the body between the chest and the top of the thighs, is involved in every movement you make.
One of the best ways to make your core stronger and more functional is to take a walk in the wilderness with a weight in a backpack. The weight can be anything: a weight plate you can grip with both hands, a set of dumbbells, two identical cans of food or even two bricks if you’re studly enough (but wrap them in a dish towel so they don’t shred your backpack).
The plus is that walking over uneven wilderness terrain with a weight on your back will burn an amazing amount of calories, while strengthening every muscle in your trunk and lower body. You’ll already be well warmed-up when you stop every so often to do a set of core exercises. Just make sure to keep your back straight—no slumping—and secure the pack so the weight doesn’t swing or jiggle.
Here’s a brief explanation of core anatomy, so you know what you’re working with. These muscles surround and support your mid- and lower trunk, keeping you upright and stabilizing your spine. They are your power center when it comes to movement, especially athletic moves.
The core is mostly thin sheets of strong muscle, except for thick columns at the sides of the backbone, the spinal erectors and the thick (and hopefully rounded) glutes that make up your butt. The obliques support the sides of your core, as the abs do the front. Some of these thin muscle sheets lie on top of each other, providing force from both deep inside and near the surface of the body.
The core exercises described below can be done in any order—just make sure to include them all so the entire core is worked. Do five sets of 10 to 20 reps for each exercise, either all at once or between stints of walking. Stop the workout immediately if you start feeling any pain in the back or lower hips.
Rotary twist (works the obliques): Hold the weight with both hands together against the chest. Twist from one side to the other, moving only at the waist. It can be done sitting or standing, but if done standing, don’t move the hips.
Tree Trunk Crunch (works the abs): Place feet on a tree trunk, with body close enough so that thighs are almost straight up and head resting on backpack to keep hair clean. With arms crossed over the chest, lift head and shoulders as high as possible. To work the deep internal transverse abdominals, turn the shoulders toward each knee with each crunch.
Good Morning (works the spinal erectors): Hoist the weight in the pack as high on your back as possible and secure it firmly. Keeping your back in a straight line, bend over at the hips until your back is perpendicular to the ground, then slowly stand up. Never curve the back.
Deadlift (works the glutes and spinal erectors): Put the weight on the ground. Bend over from the hips, keeping the back straight and the legs straight, but not locked. Pick up the weight and stand upright, then bend over (remember: at the hips, not the waist), put the weight down and stand upright again. That’s one rep.
Tree trunk pull (works the upper abs, spinal erectors and back muscles): Put arms around a small, but sturdy, tree trunk. Stiffen the arms and pull hard with the back. Hold for five seconds, trying to pull harder the entire time.
If you start feeling worn out, ease up. Remember, you still have to walk back to your car.