One of the main problems that people complain about (and that trainers project onto clients as a problem) is “core strength.” I have seen these buzz words in magazines and on gym membership ads for years and it has begun to bother me. Not that publishers and gyms are using it as a hook, but the misinformation that still exists in the culture that is being purposefully left out there in order to sell those magazines and memberships. So let me get some of those myths out of the way with a few statements of scientific fact so we can talk about what core strength actually means.

  • “Core strength” doesn’t mean “a ripped six-pack.”

  • Strengthening your core will not give you a ripped six-pack (alone).

  • A six-pack is the result of fat loss.

  • There is no such thing as targeted fat loss.

“Core strength” how Coach Stevo uses it, is simply the relative strength of the muscles in your trunk. The strength of these muscles is very important to your overall mobility, strength, and health and I am gong to try to address what these muscles are, what they do, and how you can train them without doing 1000 crunches.

The Muscles of Many Metaphors.

“The core.” Also known as “the powerhouse,” “ the box,” “the armor,” “the tummy,” “the six-pack,” or as some of my clients call it, “the no-fun-zone.” There are many names for this area of the body, most of them colorful reflections on the muscles’ many functions. What “the core” really is, are the combined function of the Major muscles included are the pelvic floor muscles on bottom, transversus abdominis, multifidus, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae (sacrospinalis) especially the longissimus thoracis, and the diaphragm on top. These muscles act in concert with the latissimus dorsi, gluteus maximus, trapezius and hip flexors to either support your spine or move you about the middle of your body. “The core” is the vocabulary I use, but I think “the box” is more apt because it reminds me that the core is not a girdle of muscles around my spine, but also has a top (diaphragm) and a bottom (the pelvic floor muscles).

What They Do

We often think of the core muscles as responsible for contracting and moving your torso independently of your hips, or vice versa. But they also support your upper body on your hips. Your spine has a lot of compressive resistance, but is really like a wet noodle against every other force vector. The core muscles spend most of their time resisting force from the front, back and sides. In short, they keep you upright.

Why You Should Care

They keep you upright! There is pretty much nothing you do in your everyday life that doesn’t use your core muscles. Getting up, picking stuff up, sex, even so called “isolated movements” like bicep curls utilize your core muscles to keep your body upright and in a desired position. A strong core is important in preventing injury (back pulls, blown discs, hernia, etc.) and is vital in coordinating just about any complex movement. Beyond resistance, the core is key in kinetic linking which delivers any power your limbs generate and direct outward. Punching, throwing, lifting, and kicking all deliver power generated from big muscles (glutes, lats, quads, etc.) through the middle of your body and out to wherever you want it to go (your hands, fists, feet, or even your head). The other function of the core is protecting your organs. The core is a suit of armor that you can engage to prevent injury to your most vital organs.

How To Train Them

Despite all the amazing things these muscles do, they are just muscles. You can train them for power, strength, or endurance just like any other muscle. So before you start doing thousands of crunches, think about what you do that uses the core and needs training. When I train for contraction, I think about power which means big, explosive movements. Hanging windshield wipers, lower back hypers, and around the world circles. You should work up to these exercises with weighted versions of normal core work such as crunches, hypers and roman twists holding weights. The key is to think about the way your shoulders can move independently of your hips (crunch forward and back, crunching to the sides, and twisting) and try to utilize all those functions with weight. But with most clients, I tend to emphasize endurance and resistant exercises that focus on support and maintaining posture rather than simple contraction. These exercises include the plank (front and sides) and having my clients hold a ball in place while I attempt to push and pull it in varying directions with different amounts of force. But the best way to train your core is without doing any specific “core workouts” or “ab days.” The best way to train your core is to use it all the damn time.

Complex Motion, Specialized Function

Most of my clients think of me as a “form nazi.” I am constantly tweaking their posture in every exercise and telling them things like, “get your hips underneath you.” What I am trying to do is get them to engage their core so that they have more control over their body and the exercise movement. The more you feel yourself using your core in every movement, the more you will think about doing every movement correctly. I don’t lift things with my back because I know what that feels like. I don’t sway my hips in a bicep curl because I know that’s cheating my biceps out of a workout (which is why I’m doing bicep curls in the first place). I also do very big, complex exercise movements that focus a lot of attention on proper form and the special purpose the core has in kinetic linking and support. Push-ups, dips, kettlebell swings, presses, and front squats. Even pull-ups depend on maintaining perfect posture and core tension in order to complete the motion and do the lift. The result of all my “form nazi” ways and my perfectionist attitude towards form is that at the end of the week, I end up doing very little “ab work.” However, I have the core strength to front squat my wife without pulling my back and the endurance to plank for 6 full minutes.

Core strength is an important part of being a healthy, strong person. But being healthy and strong doesn’t mean you are gonna have ripped abs. A “six-pack” is just the rectus abdominis without any fat on top. My wife likes to joke that based on my strength, I have a amazing set of abs lurking under a “small layer of fuel.” If you want to get ripped abs, lose weight. But if you want to do anything well, and that includes living well, you should focus on your form and think about engaging those core muscles in everything you do.