Defining the Core

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Anyone interested in fitness lingo, or has sustained a back injury, has likely encountered a therapist or fitness enthusiast who loves telling people about the importance of “the Core.”  This mysterious and powerfully functional aspect of the body has nothing do with eating apples, and everything to do with developing efficient & stable muscles.  Although professionals tend to overuse the word, the idea behind core stabilization remains significant, and understanding it can help individuals develop muscle strength, and reduce injury risk.  Today we’ll look at a basic “core” definition, explain some reasons for it’s importance, and provide a few basic exercises to help develop the area.

In Certified News of American Council on Exercise (ACE) June/July 2008, contributer Fabio Comana, M.A, M.S. describes the core as “the ability to control the position and motion of the trunk relative to the pelvis and legs (9). ” This means that the core of the body functions the same way as a building foundation; it provides stabilization for the major muscle groups (back, pelvis, legs).  The strength & efficiency of these major muscle groups contributes to postural control, balance, coordination and overall movement.   Incorporating core exercises into daily regiments can greatly enhance functional activities, as well as overall health.

The authors of the Second Edition of The Essentials of Strength & Conditioning define core exercises as those which “recruit one or more large muscle areas (i.e. chest, shoulder, back, hip, or thigh), involve two or more primary joints, and receive priority when selecting exercises because of their direct application to the sport.” This definition may appear somewhat vague, until compared with the idea of “assistance exercises,” exercises that recruit smaller muscles (neck, biceps) and involve only one primary joint (Baechle & Earle 398).  Single-joint exercises include some basics, like bicep curls, knee extensions, shoulder rows, ab crunches & neck circles.

Core exercises, on the other hand, involve the cooperation of 2+ large muscle groups, and can work in several planes.  A lunge, for example, is a core exercise because when performed correctly, it recruits the quadriceps muscles as the knee flexes, and also the glute muscles as the posterior hip extends.

Another component to core exercises involves the idea of stabilization, or developing supportive muscles.  The concept here is explained in the 3rd Ed. ACE Personal Trainer Manual as exercises that “challenge the abdominal and back muscles to hold the spine in the appropriate position during movement of the extremities (Bryant & Green 271).”  Basically this means that to develop the support of large muscle groups, there must be tests of muscular endurance, often in static positions, and involving more than one plane.

A few examples of this concept would be a single-leg balance pose, bird-dog pose (see below), and the basic plank position (see below).

The importance of core exercises comes into play when paired with daily activities, & common muscle functions.  How often, for example, do people go up & down stairs, putting their bodies through a modified version of a reverse lunge?  Or down to the toilet or chair & back up, for a squat?  Or reaching behind furniture to pick up something hard to reach, much like a single-leg deadlift?  Some of these basic movements often become difficult when the muscles become shortened, underused or injured.  Performing core strengthening & stabilizing exercises regularly reduces the pain and/or inability of basic tasks.

For fitness novices & experts alike, core exercises remain vital to the overall longevity and health of muscles.  Performing exercises like the ones below can help almost anyone develop a strong & stable foundation for the rest of their body to live in.  Individuals at any fitness level can perform core exercises, as modifications or challenges can usually be incorporated.  Start with the basics, and gradually progress to greater challenges.  And as always, consider it a joy that you have the ability to exercise!

All images are property of ACE Fitness.  Complete descriptions of exercises can be found at the ACE Fitness website.