Core strengthening is commonly touted as being the key to spinal health, improved athletic performance and fitness, and weight loss in health, rehabilitation and sports training arenas. Truthfully, the term itself is ambiguous.

Generally, core strengthening is affiliated with sit-ups, crunches and perhaps creative variations of each. At the risk of squashing the 8 Minute Abs market, these exercises are only a small segment of true core strengthening, which includes all muscles that attach to the ribs, spine or pelvis. In all, there are more than 40 core muscles, each with different functions, strengths and sizes. Commonly overlooked members of this group include the muscles that control the shoulder blades, connect the legs to the pelvis and those between the ribs.

Sit-ups have long been a measure of fitness, from the armed forces to an elementary school physical education class. It didn’t take long for all those sit-ups to equal big back pain. In an attempt to decrease negative impact, it was advised that people keep their lower back on the floor. Enter the crunch. Since its inception, variations of the crunch have included specialized equipment, twisting the body and altered leg positions. The common thread is they all target primarily the rectus abdominus muscle group, or the “six-pack” muscles, which run from the front of the ribs to the front of the pelvis. Given the vast number of target areas, limiting the definition of core strengthening to exercises for the rectus abdominus would be insufficient at best.

Myth: Abdominal workouts will make you thinner. Sit-ups and crunches are resistive workouts that don’t burn many calories, the key to decreasing body fat. Increasing your cardiovascular sessions would have greater effect. In fact, overworking the rectus abdominus can actually make the abdomen thicker.

It’s important to be familiar with the function of the core muscles before you try to train them. These muscles stabilize or keep the spine still while the arms and legs move. By keeping the trunk steady, force can be transmitted from the arms to the legs and back to the arms. Regarding the health of your spine, the core muscles are responsible for keeping it still when forces from the legs and arms meet in the middle. Without sufficient stabilization, the spine is subjected to unnecessary stresses that contribute to arthritis, disc degeneration, herniations and other forms of low back pain.

Since the job of the core muscles is to control the spine and trunk when resistance is applied to the arms and legs, exercises that mimic this relation are the preferred method. An inflated stability ball is a popular tool for core strengthening. Sitting or lying on the ball while doing upper extremity exercises forces the core muscles to keep the body still and balanced on the unstable surface. Basic arm exercises, like bicep curls and shoulder presses, while standing on one foot will engage your core muscles. You can also incorporate your awareness of trunk stability by simply pulling your abdominals in (like you’re putting on a tight pair of pants) during activities like walking or exercising on an elliptical machine.

Core Dos:

  • Keep your trunk still while doing arm and leg exercises.
  • Keep your trunk still, with the stomach pulled in, while doing cardiovascular training (stair climbers, elliptical machines, jogging, etc.).
  • Use a stability ball for increased demand on the core muscles.
  • Stand on one foot while doing resisted arm exercises.

Core Don’ts:

  • Perform excessive repetitions of crunches or sit-ups.
  • Perform exercises that repeatedly bend or hyperextend the spine.