Healthy Beginnings

Getting to the Core of the Core

  • December 14, 2007
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  • By Kirk Sachtler, PT, DPT, OCS, CMPT, CSCS
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  • Categories: Fitness, Healthy Body

It’s More Than Just Your Abs!

Core Training is one of the latest buzz-words in a haze of spin designed to engage the public interest (and pocketbooks) in the world of fitness and alternative medicine. There are devices and offerings galore on TV and the Internet advertised to shape, beautify, and strengthen your core. Devices such as: the “Ab-Lounge, Ab Roller, Ab-Rocker, Abdominizer”, and programs such as P90x, 6 minute Abs, Pilates, and more abound. If you haven’t noticed (how could you not?), all of the models demonstrating these programs and products are beautiful, lean, and have chiseled abdominal muscles. The implication being that if you buy this program or that device, you will look like them!

Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for abdominal training, I just wish to clarify some important misconceptions about “Core Training”. Core Training is actually more about functional training than muscle training. In other words, it is more about the stability and control of the Abdomino-Pelvic and Lumbo-Pelvic regions during life activities, than it is about a 6-pack!

Let’s take a look at some information available to personal trainers. The NESTA (National Exercise and Sports Training Association) website offers these comments for personal trainers:

“What muscles are involved in the core?”

“The deep trunk muscles, Transversus Abdominis (TA), multifidus (MF), Internal Oblique (IO), paraspinal, pelvic floor, are key to the active support of the lumbar spine. The co-contraction of these muscles produce forces via the “thoracolumbar fascia” (TLF) and the “intra-abdominal pressure” (IAP) mechanism which stabilize the lumbar spine, and the paraspinal and MF muscles act directly to resist the forces acting on the lumbar spine.”

Unfortunately, they are leaving out many important muscles that are part of the core. In fact, nearly All the hip and thigh muscles are part of the core, and thus need to be part of one’s program.

“As a fitness professional, why is this important?”

“Before you develop any type of fitness program, your client must have a strong core foundation to eliminate or reduce any chance of injury. A strong core is essential for power transfer from the lower to upper body and upper to lower body during all physical activities. A weak core, and lack of understanding of how core function affects movement and sports performance, will lead to diminished results and a greater likelihood of injury.”

Unfortunately, there is no research to back up the comments regarding injury, but it Is true that a lack of understanding of core function affects movement performance.

What Really Is The Core?

The “Core” of the human body is actually the center of mass, roughly 1-2 inches below the belly button. It is the midpoint of weight distribution between the upper and lower sections of the body. Functionally, it is defined as the area between the pelvis and ribcage, on all sides. It includes the pelvis, ribs, spine, the femurs (thigh bones) and all the muscle units that attach to them. So, aside from the back and abdominal muscles, we also include the muscles of the hip and thigh. Muscles like the Adductor group, the Gluteals, the Hamstrings, the Iliopsoas, the Rectus Femoris, the Quadratus Lumborum, the Latissimus Dorsi.

What Does It Do?

Ah, here lies the rub and why it is so important. The significance of the core is that it must enable the body to maintain the posture that facilitates the most efficient bi-pedal locomotion. Boy, what a mouthful! That means that when one is walking your hips don’t flop up and down like a runway model or forward and back like when riding a horse. Why is this significant? Because when the pelvis flops around as described, the lumbar spine (lower back) moves excessively. The lower back and pelvis are not supposed to, they are designed to be a platform for the upper and lower parts of the body.

So How To Train “The Core”?

It’s really not that difficult and it won’t cost you three easy payments. In fact, you can use any program or equipment you already have if you add a bit of knowledge to it. The key is to eliminate any movement of the pelvis while doing any leg lift or sit-up/crunch/trunk exercise. This, of course, demands that you concentrate on the quality of the movement and stop when you can no longer maintain the right form. What is the right form? It is something we Therapists refer to as Neutral Spine. This is Not a flat back, it is the natural curve of the lower back, what we call lordosis. Understand that when the pelvis is rocking, so is the lumbar spine and this is incorrect. Whatever exercise you are doing, you must keep the pelvis still and a small curve in the lower back. If you are lying down, a small rolled up towel under the back works great.

Another critical area to address is the range of motion of the hip joints. If you have stiff hips you will be unable to adequately control the Lumbo-Pelvic motion during exercise. One must have flexibility in all directions of hip motion. So, can you sit cross-legged without slouching? Can you perform a “Lunge Maneuver” without the pelvis twisting? If not, you have work to do.

A Simple Technique

Actually, we want those chiseled abs to be of benefit, don’t you? The best way to benefit from stronger abdominal muscles is to practice to engaging them during real-life activities. How to do this? It’s very simple. Engage the abdominal muscles by pulling the belly button inward. Oops, no lifting the shoulders or sucking in your breath please! If you do this correctly, straight back, your waistband should loosen. Try maintaining this position for 5 seconds and then work up to 20 seconds. Try also to do this while walking, running, or lifting things. And yes, you do need to breathe, but that’s a subject for another article!


1. NESTA website

2. Gray’s Anatomy

3. “Functional Relationships of the Lower Half,” by Richard Jackson, DPT.

4. Functional Anatomy by Pamela Levangie, PhD

For more info, contact Kirk Sachtler at Performance Physical Therapy, 775-787-3733.