What is the “core?”
There are many common misconceptions about the “core” even among fitness professionals. Most people probably think that the core is simply the abdominals, aka “6-pack.” However, the core is much more than that.
The core is the center of our body and it functions to stabilize the trunk while the arms and legs move during functional movements. When we view it this way, we see that the core actually includes:
- Muscles that stabilize the hips.
- The system of muscles that make up the torso (on the front, the sides, and the back of the body).
- Muscles that stabilize the shoulders.
Why is the core so important?
The core muscles have two main functions 1) to spare the spine from excessive load and 2) to transfer force from the lower body to the upper body and vice versa. Having a strong, stable core helps us to prevent injuries and allows us to perform at our best.
Injuries to the spine tend to come from a combination of bending forward, side to side or rotating excessively. Back injuries are not usually linked to one specific incident (lifting something heavy), but rather to a history or excessive load with bad mechanics. In order to protect the back, ideally we want to create 360 degrees of stiffness around the spine as we move, run, jump, throw, lift objects and transfer force throughout our body. We do this when all of the muscles in our hips, torso and shoulders work together.
How do we build core stability?
There has been a strong movement away from traditional core exercises – sit-ups, crunches, side bends, etc. New research on the effectiveness and safety of these exercises shows that they may actually do more harm than good.
Instead of creating large ranges of motion through the trunk like these traditional exercises do, most health professionals have shifted to more functional exercises to enhance the stability of the hips, torso and shoulders. Here are some basic exercises that train these key areas and a few tips to keep in mind:
- Forward plank – keep a straight line through the body, preventing the hips from sagging toward the floor.
- Side plank – maintain a straight line from your head to your heels in order to prevent side bending.
- Hip thrust – while lying on your back, bend your knees to roughly 90 degrees and press your feet firmly into the floor. Squeeze the glute muscles to lift your hips off the floor, getting your shoulders, hips, and knees into a straight line.
- Weighted carries – a great way to practice transferring force through the body. You can carry a weight in one or both hands and simply walk for a certain distance or time.The focus is on staying long through the body and not bending or twisting in any direction. These carries can be done with the weight by your side(s) or pressing the weight overhead and reaching for the sky!
Having a stable core is important for preventing injuries and also for enhancing performance in sports and other activities. Don’t worry about training specific muscles - they are ALL important for spinal stability. Think instead about how the body moves and how to challenge the core from bending and twisting too much in any direction. Having a neutral spine throughout the duration of the exercises is critical to executing them correctly and safely.
The muscles of the core are built for endurance, not for maximum strength, so it’s best to increase reps as strength improves. Finally, working with a fitness professional to help ensure safety and proper technique is recommended to help develop a core stability program that will deliver positive results.
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