Forget the mat and crunches. An expert presenting today at the American College of Sports Medicine's 14th-annual Health & Fitness Summit says core training can be done while standing - and is perhaps even more effective than typical torso exercises.

"Vertical" core exercises are more practical than training done on the ground, says Dixie Stanforth, M.Sc., because they move the body through multiple planes (forward, backward and side-to-side) and train the core in the way it is most often used - while standing. The "core" muscles are typically defined as those in the abdomen and back.

"Crunches are not as beneficial for real-life movement," Stanforth said. "As people age, the core muscles tend to shut down and lose functionality - and that's one of the main causes of low-back pain."

Stanforth recommends progressing through three levels of exercises as the core grows stronger.

Level one: Stationary training with external stability source

Stand facing a wall with feet shoulder-width apart and hands actively pushing into wall. One foot remains on the ground at all times.

1. Bring the leg forward toward the wall with a bend at the knee.

2. Bring the leg toward the wall, stepping across in front, and then out to the side.

3. Bend knee and move from the hip - first open to the outside, then swing to the inside.

Stanforth notes the exercises can also be performed keeping the legs stable with just one arm on the wall, allowing the other arm to move in all three planes to help open the mid-back and engage the core muscles.

Level two: Stationary stances

Stand in a split stance with both feet pointing forward for each exercise; repeat with other foot forward for second set.

1. Reach both arms up and back, trying to lift the ribs away from the hips and creating length in the spine.

2. Reach one arm up and over to the side, keeping your arm by your ear and your body facing forward; allow the hips to move freely.

3. Reach up and across your body, allowing the spine to rotate.

Level three: Movement

Use movement patterns like a traditional lunge, but perform it in all three planes of movement (lunging to the side and back as well.) Add the upper body for additional challenge.

American College of Sports Medicine