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What to Know About Core Exercises

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Updated June 18, 2014

Man doing sit-ups
Robert Daly/OJO Images/Getty Images

Core exercises have, if you will pardon the pun, moved to the center of the fitness world. And for good reason. If your core is strong and flexible, stresses will be distributed throughout your body better, your spine will be supported, and you will be able to move with greater efficiency. But here is what you need to know about core exercises: You need to know what the core is.

Too many people point vaguely to their bellies, announce they are going to do core work, then slam out some crunches and think they've done core. Not really.

The Core Muscles
In the broadest definitions of the core, fitness experts include the whole central section of the body all the way from the pelvis and hips up through the midsection. A big list of core muscles might look like this:

What you want to note about that is the above list is that we are talking about both surface and deep muscles as well as muscles of the front and back of the body. That's a lot more than just the abdominal muscles! In Pilates, we call it the powerhouse area.

The Core of the Core
The core muscles that are truly core are those that lie close to the center of the body. The psoas, a long muscle that runs down the front of the spine and attaches at the top of the femur; the multifidus and erector spinae, both deep spine muscles; and transversus abdominis, the deepest abdominal muscle are examples. Their actions have more to do with stabilizing than with the heavy work some of the more surface muscles do. When I think of core muscles, these are the ones I really think of. I might add in the pelvic floor and diaphragm as well.

So core exercises have to address a lot of muscles that work differently yet in concert with each other. It won't do to just focus on abdominal muscles. And it won't do to think in terms of isolations of muscle groups or brute strength. We need a variety of exercises that promote core strength and integration in different ways. Exercises that challenge our stability as we bend and move - making all the core muscles work together to stabilize the spine and maintain balance and freedom of the limbs - are typically top choices for core exercises.

Core Exercises
Pilates is a system of exercise that has long been in the forefront of core exercise. Almost every Pilates exercise emanates from an awareness of the core and builds on deep stability training. The inherent stability challenges that come with working with Pilates equipment like the reformer and Pilates chair make them ideal for core training. Indeed, that is what they were designed for. Exercises done on the exercise ball and newly popular TRX suspension system are similarly taking advantage of all the work the deep muscles have to do to keep us stable and balanced in relation to an unstable base of some kind.

Effective Core Exercise
Keep in mind that what makes stability exercises truly effective for the core is not just working the muscles. It's doing the exercises with excellent form so that the conditions are set up for strength where appropriate, balanced development, and overall integrative function. What good does it do really to train in an imbalanced way or without heading for the most optimal result? Good exercise instruction will always include tips on posture and alignment. You can educate yourself on the basics of good alignment and carry those principles into your workouts.

Go further into the core experience with Redefining Core, Is Your Powerhouse Partnering or Fighting with Gravity?

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