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.”