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Core Strength Defined
The word core is defined as "the central or most important part of something."
Obviously, in human anatomy, core is used to describe the central part of the body.
For many years — and many definitions can be found on the internet — the core was a reference to the abdominals, and in particular the Transverse Abdominis (the main abdominal muscle in the lower abdomen). Even though the core is so much more than one abdominal muscle...this brief definition still hangs on.
But identifying the abdominals as the only muscles of the core is simply inaccurate. The core includes many muscles deep within the torso: they attach to the spine and to the pelvis.
The major muscles involved in the core are:
- the abdominals in the front;
- the obliques on the side; and
- the latissimus dorsi, the erector spinae and the glutes in the back.
Keep in mind that only the major muscles are listed above. There are many smaller muscles involved, too. As well, one cannot ignore the muscles of the hips and legs — strong legs help to make a strong core — nor those of the upper back.
To localize where this core is, think of this area like a girdle around your body: from your waist to just below your hips. Nearly every movement you make involves your core muscles. Remember, too, that it has three-dimensional depth and therefore uses all three planes of motion. (See my article titled Planes of Movement for further information.)
History of Core Strength Usage
The concept of core strength has been around within the fitness industry for a long time and programmes like Pilates have emphasized it. At first, strengthening the core specifically would supposedly target low back muscles and would at least lessen if not eliminate low back pain.
But, read on — there is more.
Training the core has been a trend in the fitness industry for many years, but it began to be noticed more in the 1990's and early into the 21st century. The fitness industry was already focused on core strength concepts, but the interest from the public spawned many fads — if a class didn't offer "Ab Exercises" it wasn't working the all-important core (supposedly).
As time went by, controversy began. Did it really help low back pain? Was this all just a lot of hype? Researchers began to study this issue and new ideas emerged. We know much more now than we did in the 1990's.
Controversy Surrounding the Benefits of Core Stability Exercises
As time has passed, there have been more questions about the merits of core exercises and what benefits were derived from them. Everyone usually agrees that basic core exercises are beneficial, but the question became: What did it benefit? And what are the best exercises to work the core? The final conclusion seems to be that core strength can indeed help in some ways, but not in others.
Let's look first at some of the myths which developed. A study titled "The Myth of Core Stability" by Professor Eyal Lederman was published in 2007 2. The introduction to the study says this:
"Core stability (CS) arrived in the latter part of the 1990’s. ...The research in trunk control has been an important contribution to the understanding of neuromuscular reorganisation in back pain and injury. ... The CS studies [in the past] confirmed that such changes take place in the trunk muscles of patients who suffer from back injury and pain.
"However, these findings combined with general beliefs about the importance of abdominal muscles for a strong back and influences from Pilates [have promoted some incorrect conclusions of what strengthening core muscles will do to help].
"Several assumptions prevalent in CS training are:
- That certain muscles are more important for stabilisation of the spine, in particular the transverses abdominis;
- That weak abdominal muscles lead to back pain;
- That strengthening abdominal or trunk muscles can reduce back pain;
- That there is a unique group of “core” muscles working independently of other trunk muscles;
- That a strong core will prevent injury; and,
- That there is a relationship between stability and back pain.
"As a consequence of these assumptions, a whole industry grew out of these studies with gyms and clinics worldwide teaching the “tummy tuck” and trunk bracing exercises to athletes for prevention of injury and to patients as a cure for lower back pain. At that point core stability became a cult and Transverse Abdominis its mantra. In this article some of these basic assumption will be re-examined."
After much study of the research, particularly about whether or not CS exercises would aid those with lower back pain, these are some of Professor Leaderman's conclusions:
- Weak or dysfunctional abdominal muscles will not lead to back pain.
- Core stability exercises are no more effective than, and will not prevent injury more than, any other forms of exercise.
- Core stability exercises are no better than other forms of exercise in reducing chronic lower back pain.
- There may be potential danger of damaging the spine with continuous tensing of the trunk muscles during daily and sports activities. Patients who have been trained to use complex abdominal hollowing and bracing maneuvers should be discouraged from using them."
So, if CS exercises will not help those who suffer from low back pain, are any of the core stability exercises of use or helpful? And, if so, which ones? And for what?
Exercising the Core to Improve Posture and Balance
Even though there remains controversy about the merits of core stability exercises for low back pain, there does seem to be some continuity among researchers and the those in the fitness industry that core stability exercises can help posture and balance, and it may help with overall strength and power.
So how do we engage the core? Use the trunk of your body without support.
- Standing or kneeling on a BOSU, Core Disk or Balance Disk;
- Standing on one leg while doing arm movements;
- Supine on the mat: bridges, leg lifts (straight and bent legs), bicycle;
- Prone on the mat: superman, planks;
- Seated in a chair: side bends; and,
- Seated on a fitness utility ball: side bends, arm strength exercises.
All exercises should be done with proper form and you should remember the final recommendation from Professor Lederman:
- "There may be potential danger of damaging the spine with continuous tensing of the trunk muscles during daily and sports activities. Patients who have been trained to use complex abdominal hollowing and bracing maneuvers should be discouraged from using them."
No doubt there have been too many over-statements about the benefits of core stability. But despite the hype and with the help of research, we can make some conclusions about the core:
- The core greatly assists us in standing erect and moving easily.
- A strong core helps us to go about our daily chores a little more easily.
- The core is not just the abdominal muscles, but all of the muscles that help us to stand erect.
- As with all muscles of the body, the muscles in our core need attention.
- Exercising our core will reap the same benefits as exercising other muscles in our body.
Other articles you may find useful:
- The Stability Ball: Why You Should Try It
- Fitness Principles
- Exercise and Balance
- Exercise and Lifestyle and Older Adults: Recent Research
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.
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Professor Lederman's work can be found in many places on the internet. His work was published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies and you will find the abstract here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S136085920900093X. A PDF of his work can also be found by simply typing into your search engine: "The Myth of Core Stability." ↩