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“Let’s do a core workout today.” “Isolate those core muscles!” “Whew! My core is sore.”
You may hear one of these statements, or something similar, every time you go to the gym. It seems like everyone talks about the “core.” So let’s explore exactly which muscles make up your core, why they’re important, and some creative ways to strengthen them.
What’s the Core?
Some people think “core” and “abdominal muscles” are synonymous. But your core is actually a collection of interconnected muscle groups in the middle of your body. Here’s an analogy that may help:
Pretend you’re a tree. When comparing the parts of a tree to your body, the branches are your arms, the roots are your legs, and the trunk is your torso. The trunk of the tree—your midsection—is an essential source of strength and stability.
Jamie D., a student at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, notes that everything from the pelvic muscles up to the back and parts of the shoulders are her core muscle group. This includes the front abdominal wall, obliques, hip flexors, and spinal flexor/erector muscles.
Of Core Importance
“A strong core is important to support the spine. It allows us to stand upright, walk, and perform all of the other twists and turns that are a part of normal life. As an older learner, I understand the necessity of strengthening my core and keeping my bones strong,” says Kathy S., a student at North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City.
Consider these health benefits of a strong core:
- Less discomfort while standing or sitting for extended periods
- Reduced lower back pain
- Improved posture
- Better stability and balance
- Less knee or ankle pain
- Toned abdominal and back muscles
Karl Advek, a certified personal trainer with Perfect Game in Stamford, Connecticut, explains, “All movement [depends on] a kinetic chain, and like any chain, the whole is only as strong as the weakest link. Most strength and whole-body movements originate from the pelvic complex, the hips, and the spine—[in other words], the core.”
Advek also notes, “You may not feel the impact until you’re older, but [a weak core] can’t help but affect lower back issues, neck and knee pain, etc.”
I’m Sold on Strengthening!
Sarah P., a student at Collin College in Plano, Texas, says, “Because of core strength, I’ve avoided things like back pain, and I feel stronger when I do other exercises.” Here are some exercise ideas to get you started:
Yoga and Pilates
If you prefer high-intensity exercise, you may initially question yoga as a workout. However, many yoga poses are challenging and require a great deal of strength to perform properly. Try incorporating elements of yoga and Pilates into your routine, and you’ll likely experience increased core strength as a result.
Here are some other activities that will help strengthen your core:
- Running: Sure, running is about exercising your legs and lungs, but when using proper running form—back straight, arms tucked in, elbows locked—you’ll be targeting the upper back and oblique muscles with each pump of your arms. Running is also a high-impact, balance-intensive exercise, so it utilizes the hip flexors and abdominal wall, too.
- Swimming: Like running, swimming engages your whole body. Stabilizing your core will enhance your ability to make smooth, swift movements. Certain strokes, like the “butterfly,” are particularly dependent on the core muscles.
- Canoeing, rafting, and rock climbing: Any activity that requires balance will both benefit from and help you build your core strength.
Most fitness centers have stability and BOSU® balls. Stability balls are large, air-filled rubber spheres, while BOSU balls are half-spheres with a flat bottom. When moving on this equipment, your core has to engage to help you stay balanced.
Lifting weights puts a lot of strain on your lower back and abdominal wall. Engaging your entire core will enhance your performance and help protect you from injury.
No matter the activity, it’s important to always use proper form. Eve Whelchel, a certified ballet instructor with the Saratoga City Ballet School in New York, stresses this. “You have to focus on engaging your abdominals and back, and it’s usually a micro-movement. A lot of people think ‘the bigger, the better’ with core [strengthening], but it’s just the opposite. You have to go slow and be precise,” she explains.
- Move slowly and deliberately when exercising your core muscles.
- Pay attention to the whole core, not just your abs.
- Consult a personal trainer or knowledgeable friend for exercise suggestions and to learn proper form.
- Try a variety of sports and techniques to make working out fun.
Get help or find out more
The American Council on Exercise, Rethinking Core Training
Phillips, E. (2012). “Build your core muscles for a healthier, more active future.” Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Blog.
“The real-world benefits of strengthening your core.” Harvard Medical School, HEALTHbeat E-Newsletter.