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The Bottom Line in Health: What Is Your Core, Anyway?

“Core” is a big buzzword in fitness. You may frequently hear about core training classes at gyms, warnings to keep your core protected, and advice from trainers to lift with your core. But what is the core? Why is it important? How do you know if yours is weak and how do you strengthen it?

Your core is a complex series of muscles, extending far beyond the exterior abdominal musculature that people typically train, such as the rectus abdominus (the “six pack” muscles) or external and internal obliques. These popularized muscles conceal many of the deeper muscles of the core, including the transverse abdominals, multifidus, diaphragm, pelvic floor, and other muscles. There are over 15 of these core muscles, including the diaphragm, an essential breathing muscle. When you put all these muscles together, they form the “core” of your body and the “core” of your movement patterns. In other words, if you bend down, pick up a weight and lift it overhead, each of these core muscles becomes involved in the movement. If your core muscles are weak, you can’t breathe as deeply, lift as heavily, or move as quickly.

The deeper group of muscles in the core usually goes untrained due to its concealment under other muscles. Because many people are exercising to improve their physical image, they tend to focus on the muscles that get the most exposure. As a result, they structure their workouts around exercises that target the exterior muscles of the body. By training that way, not only are people missing out on a major function of their internal musculature, the core, but also miss out on strength gains, more efficient movement, and general health.

Your core should not be trained as a primary mover by doing exercises such as sit-ups or crunches, but, rather, it should act as a stabilizer and as a force transfer center in functional movements such as push ups, deadlifts, or squats. We must look at core strength as the ability to produce core stability. It is important to first achieve core stability to protect the spine and surrounding musculature from injury in static and then dynamic movements.

Another series of movements requires a strong core. When we want to effectively and efficiently transfer and produce force during dynamic movements, we need to maintain core stability. This dynamic movements can include running, performing major lifts like a squat, or picking up the gallon of milk far back in the fridge while keeping your back safe. In fact, research has shown that athletes with higher core stability have a lower risk of injury.

“Core training” or “core exercises” train the three-dimensional cylinder of muscles in your midsection. A well-developed core will allow you to quickly contract and stabilize your body in order for you to perform a motion away from your core with greater precision, while at the same time protecting your body from injury.

A good example of the core in action can be seen in a pitcher’s wind up when the arm rests in a cocked phase.  As the pitcher places his or her entire weight on one leg as he or she winds up, the pitcher relies on the core to stabilize the body and prevent it from falling over, all while positioning their shoulder to generate maximal torque and velocity onto the baseball.  If the pitcher’s core was weak, the elbow would drop and he or she would limit the external rotation of their shoulder. This would not only diminish the velocity of the ball, but would also likely cause injury to their arm.

Injuries can be generated by a lack of core stability, but, at the same time, can be prevented by strengthening proper core function.

Before working on any extremity strengthening or skill work, we need to assess core stability and develop a program to ensure these muscles function properly to maximize performance and lower the risk of injury. Every movement the body initiates actually starts at the core and thus core development should be the foundation of any sport performance program.

There are a multitude of tests that measure core stability, but the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) is a fitness industry standard for gauging an individual’s core limitations.  By screening seven basic patterns, the FMS readily identifies tightness, weakness and asymmetries in the body. The results of the screen offer a baseline to mark progress and provide a means to measure performance. It also indicates an individual’s readiness to perform exercise so that realistic fitness goals can be set and achieved. Once an individual’s core strength has been evaluated, she or he can begin to strengthen the muscles of their midsection with basic moves such as the plank, pushup, squat, and lunge. Video demonstrations of the exercises can be found on YouTube, but speak to your doctor first if you have back problems, osteoporosis or other health concerns.

The takeaway: The core sits at the center of your body. It consists of the abdomen muscles, the hips, the spine, and the back muscles. It is the foundation from which your arms and legs branch out, and rotates your body to help give it momentum to move in any direction. The core helps maintain proper posture, balance and alignment of the body. When the core is strong, the body is strong!

A Note on the Author: the Bottom Line In Health seeks to provide simple fitness and nutrition tips for the Yeshivah University community. As a National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer and Fitness and Nutrition Specialist, it is my goal to enhance the readers’ understanding of how to maintain a healthy standard of living while improving performance in and out of school and supporting an overall sense of well-being.