What, exactly, does "core strength" mean?

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This article was edited and updated on April 14, 2017.

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.

This diagram shows most of the muscles involved in the core, but not all.

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:

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:

"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:

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.

For example:

All exercises should be done with proper form and you should remember the final recommendation from Professor Lederman:

Conclusion

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:

Other articles you may find useful:

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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  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. 

  2. 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."