"Core" Values or Fitness Folly
By Doug Brignole
There have been so many people jumping on the “Core” bandwagon, I feel it necessary to suss out what “Core” is, and what it isn’t - and whether or not it’s a method of exercise into which the investment of time and energy has merit.
The three most common “benefits” credited to Core training is that it helps you look thinner (i.e., smaller waist), that it supports your spine, and that it helps you with balance. Let’s look at each of these “benefits”, and see if there is any truth to them. But before we do that, let’s identify those Core muscles - shall we?
Proponents of Core training typically say that the ("all important") Core is comprised of “the front outer abs, the side muscles (aka “obliques”), and a very deep layer of muscle”. The claim is that “...it’s the deep muscles that do all the good stuff, like support your spine and act as a natural corset - so when you work them, you get a flatter and tighter stomach.”
My objection begins with the ambiguity of how “Core” is defined. While I agree that working the muscles that are involved with our posture, spine and pelvis are important from a functional perspective - “Core” has become an esoteric term that almost seems to imply “the soul”. Being defined as a “very deep layer of muscle” leads one to believe that there is a complicated “human essence” which requires strengthening - or else there will be consequences.
Yes - there is the “rectus abdominus”, which is the muscle that is front and center of the abdomen. It starts at the base of the ribs and extends down to the pubic bone of the pelvis. This muscle’s function is to bend the torso forward (technically, to bring the ribcage and the pelvis toward each other, which creates a forward “curling” of the spine).
Yes - there are the muscles on the side of the waist, which are known as the “obliques”. This muscle’s function is primarily to cause lateral (side-to-side) bending of the torso.
That so-called “very deep layer” is just underneath the rectus abdominus (the “front and center” muscle), and it’s known as the “transverse abdominus”. This muscle runs horizontal to the torso (in the opposite direction to the rectus abdominus, which runs perpendicular to the torso), and it’s primary job is to rotate the torso from left to right.
And finally there are the “erector spinae” muscles of the lower back (lumbar). These muscles’ job is to bend (arch) the spine backward. They work opposite the rectus abominus (who’s job it is to bend the spine forward).
That’s it - four movements. Forward bend, backward bend, side-to-side bend, and torso rotation. Simple.
Should these functions be worked? Yes - of course. And so should some other important functions, like “hip extension” - which is what our hips do when they push us up into a standing position, from a sitting position. That involves the glutes (i.e., squats and/or stepping).
What about “hip flexion” - which is the act of lifting your knees up in front of you? This movement requires activation of the hip flexor muscle group (“Psoas major” and “minor”, the “iliacus”, the “sartorius”, etc.).
In addition, there are two other important muscles to work besides these - the quads (which extend our knees) and the hamstrings (which flex our knees) - both of these muscle groups tie into our pelvis and participate in hip flexion and extension. Now we’re up to eight separate functions (i.e., movements). All of these muscles (and their respective functions) involve our hips or spine, and thus the so-called “core”.
So at what point do we stop calling all of these important functions “core”? Why do we need to call them anything at all? “Fitness” is supposed to be more than just working your arms. Why not simply say that these eight functions are important parts of a sensible fitness program - they involve these muscles, and they perform these movements? That would make it less ambiguous, which would then make it easier to know which exercises to do.
Proponents of “core training” also encourage us to make every exercise unstable - meaning, that we should create a degree of imbalance, with which we must struggle, while doing each exercise. For example, instead of doing a standing alternate dumbbell curl - while standing on two legs - we’re encouraged to do it while standing on one leg, on a wobble board, or on a Bosu ball.
Hey - if that sort of thing is fun for you, go for it. But if you dislike doing exercises on one leg - or while off balance - you won’t me missing much if you do the exercise the regular way (stable, while standing on solid ground, with two legs). This is especially true if you’ve already worked those eight important functions I mentioned above. Plus, instability has a cost. By becoming off balance, you are trading away a degree of strength, with which you could better perform the given exercise. In fact, I believe you’d be trading away more benefit, than you’d be gaining.
Let’s not confuse athleticism with “core”. Moving your body in space (climbing stairs, hiking, dancing, swimming, playing tennis or basketball, surfing, etc.) will work minute muscles that contribute to balance and coordination (i.e., athleticism) - and they do it far better than standing on one leg while doing alternate dumbbell curls. So my suggestion is - do the strength work at the gym, and the balance work by walking, dancing, hiking, biking, etc. You’ll get a much better result than if you tried combining the two at once.
Overstating the Benefits
Proponents of “core training” tend to have a sort of evangelical enthusiasm for it. That, combined with the word itself (“core”), lend more mystique to the practice than I believe is appropriate. This is not to say that exercises which benefit the waist and torso aren’t valuable; they are. But it’s not like one will fall apart if they don’t do them, as one might imagine a house crumpling because it didn’t have a “solid foundation”. And most people do exercises in their “standard” exercise routine, that already work many - if not all - of their (so called) core muscles.
One of the most “untrue” benefits proclaimed by Core proponents is the idea that they’ll make you appear thinner. They claim that the core muscles act like a “natural corset” - giving you a “flatter and tighter stomach”. Frankly, that’s completely false.
Let’s look at the “corset” analogy. A corset is essentially an elastic band, that has a circumference of (say.....) 20 inches or so, when it is not around one’s abdomen. When one puts it on, it is stretched to the actual size of one’s waist....let’s say (for example) 30 inches. Once it’s on, it squeezes inward, because it wants to return to it’s 20 inch circumference. No abdominal muscle will do that.
For the sake of comparison, let’s say that this “corset” principal were applied to the biceps of your arm. It would mean that - because you’ve worked your biceps and it’s now stronger than before - it will keep your elbow constantly bent. That’s simply not true. No matter how strong your biceps is, when it’s relaxed, it will still allow your arm to hang as straight as it did before it got strong. There is no “constant elastic tension” occurring in the biceps, nor in the muscles of the abdomen.
Moreover, firm abdominal muscles will not pull excess body fat inward. The only way to reduce the waist line circumference, is to reduce the excess body fat that is stored on your body. And that is done by way of dietary changes and increased calorie spending. Misleading people into believing they can “make their waist appear thinner” by doing core exercise, is a tremendous disservice. It simply creates an unrealistic expectation.
Finally, unless one is a high level athlete who regularly participates in some kind of sport, the minor improvement in balance one might derive from “unstable / off-balance” training is hardly worth the investment of time. Again - one would be better off doing an activity like climbing stairs or dancing. The improvement of coordination would be much better, and there would the additional bonus of cardiovascular stimulation.
I don’t mean to be the contrarian, nor the bearer of bad news, but there is an enormous amount of false hope (and marketing hype) out there, and this type of misrepresentation is precisely the kind of stuff that perpetuates it. It’s better to approach the subject knowing exactly what does happen, what cannot happen, and how to set realistic goals. Then you can plan a truly sensible strategy.
Doing What You “Like” - vs - Doing What Works
One particular proponent of “core training” recently said that “abdominal crunches are boring, and people hate them”, and that she could think of four other exercises that would produce faster results. That’s nonsense. First off, crunches (i.e. flexing the spine forward) is the exclusive function of the “front and center” abs (the rectus abdominus). This muscle doesn’t do anything BUT spinal flexion.
This is no different that saying “biceps curls” are boring, but I can do other exercises that produce faster results (for biceps development). Biceps curling (elbow bending) is exclusively what the biceps does. So, not only is there no other way to stimulate that muscle, if I were to do anything OTHER than what that muscle is designed to do, it CANNOT produce faster results. Anything else would be a compromise. Planks, for example, are a compromise (on crunches) because - although they involve the rectus abdominus - the absence of movement makes it “isometric” (rather than “dynamic”), and therefore produces less stimulation to the muscle, than would actual crunches.
The real crux of this is the difficulty factor. It’s not the movement that someone might find “boring” or “hate-able”, it’s the level of resistance relative to the person’s ability. Yes, regular (on the floor) crunches are TOO hard for most people to perform correctly and for enough repetitions. But they can be made EASIER.
In other words, that same movement, performed with less resistance, would be better. It would allow full range of motion (proper form), enough repetitions (20 - 30 without maximum effort), and would therefore be less “hate-able”. So how do we make the resistance “lighter” (easier)?
Standard crunches - performed on the floor - require us to lift 100% of our torso weight off the floor. This is because of a simple rule of physics. Our starting point begins with our torso perpendicular to gravity. Try doing them from an incline angle, and it’s much easier (...and that’s okay).
Lean a piece of plywood (18” x 30”) against an ottoman, or against the front edge of a couch. Then sit on the floor (with your tail bone at the base of the board), and lie with your back against the board (head higher than your hips). Do the crunches from that angle. Same movement, same muscle, less resistance. This angle reduces the resistance to about 60% of the person’s torso weight. But you must perform that movement, if your objective is to stimulate the “front and center” abs. Again - that muscle only performs that one movement.
Cost / Benefit
Most of us are busy. We only have so much time in our day, and we try to spread that around to satisfy a variety of obligations. We cannot afford to waist time nor effort on tasks that will not produce our desired result.
My recommendation is to perform exercises for the four torso movements I mentioned earlier (forward bend, backward bend, side bend, torso rotation), as well as a glute exercise (like squats or lunges or leg presses) - at a minimum. These are the most important movements related to the (so called) core - the muscles that most affect the spine. The second tier of importance would be the hip flexors, the quads and the hamstrings.
For balance and coordination, try doing 30 - 60 minutes per week of some “total body” activity, like dancing, brisk walking, stair climbing, basketball or tennis - all at once, or divided into two or three shorter bouts, if you like.
And let’s stop calling this “core” training. It’s just sensible fitness - period.