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“Let’s do a core workout today.” “Isolate those core muscles!” “Whew! My core is sore.”

I hear one of these statements, or something similar, every time I 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.

Sean H., a sophomore at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts, notes that that he didn’t realize until recently that everything from the pelvic muscles up to the back and parts of the shoulders were his core muscle group. This includes the front abdominal wall, obliques, hip flexors, and spinal flexor/erector muscles.

See a diagram

Of Core Importance

“The core is especially important because you use it all day without even thinking about it. Whether you’re walking to class or lying in bed, your core muscles are being stimulated,” says Harshil P., a junior at The Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

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, “College students are young enough that they may not feel the impact until later in life, but [a weak core] can’t help but affect lower back issues, neck and knee pain, etc.”

I’m Sold on Strengthening!

Jordan G., a senior at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, says, “When you exercise your core you feel better, and when you feel better you’re more likely to be productive.” Here are some exercise ideas to get you started:

Yoga and Pilates
During my time as a track athlete, I foolishly scoffed at yoga. That is, until our coaches made it a mandatory part of our training. After each yoga workout—and it is a workout—I was begging to go back to running endless laps!

Here are some 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.

Weight Training
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.

Take Action:

  • 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.

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