Core Essentials

By Andrew Heffernan |

Ask most gym-goers what part of their body they most want to strengthen, and chances are they’ll point at their midsection. Strong core muscles guard against hip and back pain; they help us carry our kids without strain; they make us stand taller. They aid in the efficient transfer of power from the lower to the upper body, and they improve our performance in everything from cardio to weight training to moving furniture. A solid core is the key to true strength and function.

Yet fitness experts joke that while everyone talks about core training, virtually no one ever does anything about it. People tend to choose exercises that work only the superficial muscles of the core — crunching away like it’s Walnut Day at the county fair.

But a small group of experts is trying to change that. Defined abs depend more on what you do at the dinner table than what you do in the gym, so instead of obsessing over appearance, these coaches focus on developing a core that will keep us pain- and injury-free, whether we’re pitching fastballs or planting dahlias. The bonus? You’ll probably end up with a better-looking midsection, too.

Core-Training Challenges

Most people assume the core is simply the rectus abdominis, or the six-pack muscles. But the truth goes deeper. “Realistically, the core is everything from your chin to your thighs,” says Michael Boyle, MEd, CSCS, founder of The core brings up the rear, too, including the back, glutes and hamstrings.

Training this intricate set of muscles presents a unique challenge, says Boyle, because current science suggests that rather than just creating motion like most muscle groups do (think about what the biceps do during a curl), the function of the core is also to resist unwanted movement, such as twisting or bending, around the spine. In other words, it should keep the spine both stiff and supple when outside forces — such as the weight of a squirming toddler — are placed upon it.

“The core is designed to be a spring to store and recover elastic energy,” says Stuart McGill, BPE, MEd, PhD, professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada and author of(Human Kinetics, 2007). An optimal program should train the muscles to do just that.

What Not to Do

In search of that elusive six-pack, many gym-goers turn to crunches, ab machines and other isolation exercises drawn from bodybuilding-style workouts. But this approach can do more harm than good. “If you use bad form or too much weight, you can injure yourself,” warns Sara Wiley, MS, CSCS, strength and conditioning coach at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Back pain and disc damage can also result from overextending or twisting the lumbar spine during exercise (think rotating medicine-ball throws), says Jim Smith, CSCS, creator of the DVD series Combat Core Strength. When you engage in rotational movements — fast or slow — the rotation (and power) should occur and be generated from the hips and thoracic spine. Smith says he’s had many clients who have hurt their backs by rotating improperly in poorly supervised yoga classes. (For a smarter approach to spinal mobility, see ”Back in Trouble” in the January/February 2009 archives.)

Going too hard for too long is another common mistake. “I’d rather do things that are harder for fewer reps,” says Boyle. “What causes spinal discs to deteriorate is repeated flexion.

Crunches, in which you draw your rib cage toward your pelvis, are a classic example of repeated flexion. In fact, when scientists want to damage the spine of a cadaver for research purposes, Boyle says, they put it in a device that’s virtually identical to the crunch machine. Says McGill: “Everyone has a finite capacity to perform any given movement. Want to use yours up doing crunches? Wouldn’t be my choice.”

The New Core Values

If the core is, anatomically speaking, everything but the kitchen sink, how do we train it in a meaningful way?  Every good trainer will have his or her own approach, but they all follow a handful of principles:

  1. Once you’ve learned to activate your core muscles properly, you should expand your program to include full-body athletic movements, as well. “You’re teaching a muscular orchestra to play,” says McGill. Exercises like the farmer’s walk and the anti-rotation arc force your core to stabilize the spine while the rest of the body is in motion.

Core training is both more complex and simpler than most of us think. It may require more than crunches, but it certainly doesn’t entail a garage full of gadgetry. Once you understand the true function of the core — spine stabilization — and how to achieve it through balanced, intelligent training, it’s easy to determine which of the thousand-and-one core exercises out there are worth your time. Start doing these movements regularly and maybe you’ll stir up an anti-crunch revolution among the athletes at your local gym. Their backs will thank you for it.

Core Training at a Glance

OK, you’re sold on the benefits of the new wave of core exercises. Here’s what to keep in mind while you’re doing them:

  1. focus on isolation exercises, like crunches and machine work. Focus instead on working the core in conjunction with your larger muscle groups.

Top 5 Core Exercises

Unlike crunches and other isolation moves, these exercises challenge the core to stabilize the spine under load — mimicking sports and the demands of everyday life.

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