The Inside Scoop on Core Training
If you have been near a fitness center lately, you may have spotted large colorful balls around the edge of the fitness room, or people performing a variety of complicated-looking exercises on mats. Maybe you have tried some of these exercises yourself, or taken a class that included some core muscle strengthening work. Maybe you have wondered what your instructor meant by "core training," and whether these exercises are all they are cracked up to be.
Core strengthening exercises are popular at many fitness centers because they often help relieve various aches and pains, especially back pain, due to weak muscles and poor posture. Core strengthening also helps to improve balance and prevent falls in vulnerable older adults. Many athletes perform core strengthening exercises to increase the torso stability they need for peak sport performance.
Many people seeking physical fitness focus on aerobic activity and strength training, which primarily work the large muscle groups of the limbs and torso. While the core muscles perform some stability work during most aerobic and strength-training exercise, they may not get enough of an overload to prevent the weakening that occurs with a sedentary lifestyle. This may explain why core strengthening classes have come into their own in the past decade, as an antidote to years of neglect for these important muscles.
What is core training?
Various terms are used to describe exercises performed to strengthen the abdominal and back muscles that move and stabilize the torso. Core training and core conditioning simply mean training the core muscle groups with core strengthening exercises that challenge these muscles to improve their strength and endurance.
Core muscles help to hold the torso steady and in good alignment, whether you are seated at a desk or playing a vigorous tennis game. Many core strengthening exercises involveholding the torso still as destabilizing forces are applied, such as moving the arms and legs, or balancing on a stability platform or ball.
What are the core muscle groups?
Central to core conditioning are the deep abdominal muscles and the back muscles that stabilize the spine. Some instructors include other muscle groups in their core work as well, including muscles of the hips, buttocks, inner thighs and other back muscles.
The innermost abdominal muscle, the transversus abdominis, is especially important for injury prevention and back health. This large muscle wraps around your lower torso like a corset. When this muscle is contracted, it compresses the abdomen. You may feel this muscle contract when you blow your breath out forcefully between pursed lips, or when you cough. Your fitness instructor may tell you to "pull your navel toward your spine" to help you engage this deep muscle layer.
Two sets of abdominal muscles, called the internal and external obliques, work over the transversus to help your torso rotate. They also help the transversus to stabilize your torso. Core back muscles are engaged when you lie on your stomach and lift your legs or shoulders. When you sit on a stability ball, these core muscles all work to help you keep your balance.
What's the best way to add core training?
There are many good ways to add core training to your exercise program. Some people like special core training classes that teach them new exercises and offer instruction on working the core muscles properly. Many good videos and books contain advice on core strengthening exercises, as well. Classes such as Pilates, yoga, martial arts and many forms of dance work extensively on core strength. Core training should be part of an exercise program that also includes aerobic exercise, strength training and stretching.
Do you need special equipment for core training?
Stability balls and other props offer variety, but many core strengthening exercises can be performed without equipment. More important than equipment is technique -- it is important to learn proper exercise alignment (position) and breathing to prevent injury. If you are new to core training techniques, an exercise instructor or personal trainer can provide feedback and help you work safely and effectively.FM
Barbara A. Brehm, Ed.D., is professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith College, Northampton, Mass.