What Is the Core?

PilatesImage by jo-h via Flickr

OK, core training is everywhere! Core fitness, core exercise machines, core, core, core! So I wondered what people thought their core muscles were.

In an inexact survey of guests and friends I was dismayed to learn that most people think that core = abdominals only. WRONG! The core muscles are the abs, back, butt, and inner thigh muscles, all of which must be strong and balanced.

Now Joseph Pilates knew that when he developed Contrology (now known as Pilates) in the early 20th century, using exercises that strengthened what he called the Powerhouse of butt, abs, back, and inner thighs. For him this whole center had to work for the body to be strong.

In a recent NY Times article, Is Your Ab Workout Hurting Your Back?, back exercise research guru Stuart McGill lays this out very clearly.

"The “core” remains a somewhat nebulous concept; but most researchers consider it the corset of muscles and connective tissue that encircle and hold the spine in place. If your core is stable, your spine remains upright while your body swivels around it. But, McGill says, the muscles forming the core must be balanced to allow the spine to bear large loads. If you concentrate on strengthening only one set of muscles within the core, you can destabilize your spine by pulling it out of alignment. Think of the spine as a fishing rod supported by muscular guy wires. If all of the wires are tensed equally, the rod stays straight. “If you pull the wires closer to the spine,” McGill says, as you do when you pull in your stomach while trying to isolate the transversus abdominis, “what happens?” The rod buckles. So, too, he said, can your spine if you overly focus on the deep abdominal muscles. “In research at our lab,” he went on to say, “the amount of load that the spine can bear without injury was greatly reduced when subjects pulled in their belly buttons” during crunches and other exercises.

Instead, he suggests, a core exercise program should emphasize all of the major muscles that girdle the spine, including but not concentrating on the abs."

Says McGill, “I see too many people who have six-pack abs and a ruined back.”

"Core" Training


Vertebral column.Image via Wikipedia

Today I am going on a little rant about the number of personal trainers and pilates teachers who say they teach "core" training but have no real idea of what they are doing. I see so many guests at Parrot Cay who have hurt themselves in these privates and they all have a few things in common:

1. They assume their trainer, who gets paid for the service, actually knows what he or she is doing, so the client assumes that the pain is part of the process.

2. They are taught to tuck their pelvis under and flatten the lumbar spine in an attempt to stabilize and "protect" their backs.

3. They are placed on unstable surfaces like a Bosu before they are able to really stabilize in basic sitting, standing, and planking positions just on the floor.

The core muscles are the abs, back, butt, and thigh muscles. They work mostly to hold the torso and spine stable, and then also to help move the torso and spine. These muscles wrap around the body and cannot be trained in simply a front to back relationship. Flattening your lumbar spine actually weakens your core by taking away the normal curvature of your spine!

Any personal trainer or coach who causes people back, neck, and joint pain in the quest for core strength should not be teaching. Period. If you have a trainer who does this you need to find someone who knows what they are doing. Your time is money; plus you are paying someone to handle your body.

First learn to stabilize on the floor or mat (that's why Pilates starts supine and then progresses up to standing). Basic simple exercises that focus on maintaining torso stability as you move in different relationships to gravity and resistance (like we do in real life) are much more effective than contrived exercises on new gadgets.

There's no school like the old school! (Thank you, Brady for the quote.)