“My doctor told me I have to strengthen my core.” “I want to train my core.” Sound familiar? It sure does to us fitness professionals. The basic idea that the body has a centralized, predominant group of muscles that are involved in most movements and activities we do is a correct one. “Core Training” is just another term for taking a training-related approach to focusing on conditioning those muscles so we function better. There is nothing wrong with wanting to take such an approach; in fact pretty much every fitness professional (myself included) agree with this; so why does this term (one which I used to use a lot in my earlier days as a personal trainer) now irk me? I think perhaps it is because over the years I have come to realize that not only is this term grossly misunderstood in general but also because it has helped perpetuate some fitness myths that I would like to touch on here.
When most people talk about the “core” they mean the abdominal muscles (the rectus abdominis, visible in those with very low bodyfat). Those just a little more knowledgeable will include the “deep abdominal muscles” (transverse abdominis, abdominal aponeurosis [although the aponeurosis is not technically a muscle], and obliques [extra credit to those who differentiate between the external & internal obliques]). It is true that the abdominal muscle group (which for the sake of brevity will henceforth be shortened to the “abs”) are involved in pretty much every major muscle movement we do. But there are other muscle groups that carry that same distinction – the muscles that surround and attach to the pelvis (the approximately dozen hip flexors, the three major gluteal muscles, quadratus lumborum, piriformis, the “lats”, hamstrings, quads, the lumbar muscles including the erector spinae, etc.) From a strictly anatomical point of view the distinguishing feature of all the “core” muscles is that they attach to the pelvis and the vertebrae of the spine. That equates to about three-dozen muscle groups that comprise the “core.” If we were to leave out everything but the “abs” (which is what many think of when talking about the core) then the term “core” wouldn’t even apply! All of these muscles work together to help stabilize the spine. “Core Training” is simply a catchier way of saying “Spinal Stabilization Training.”
Obviously the “core” is a lot bigger than commonly assumed. This is why I (and an increasing number of other fitness peeps) are finding ourselves in various stages of avoiding the word – it is overused and underappreciated. When we talk about conditioning the core what we really mean is strengthening the muscles that control the spine and prevent it from being pulled every which way when lifting things or making all major muscle movements – the “abs” alone aren’t big or strong enough to handle such a monumental task. This is important because a spine that gets regularly yanked around outside of its normal range of motion is more likely to develop degenerative impingements and issues.
The best way to train the muscles to stabilize the spine better is to stabilize the spine under increasingly progressive loading. Squats, Deadlifts, Rows, Pulldowns, Pallof Presses… all of these exercises force the body’s major muscle groups to act synergistically to do this while allowing for unhindered progression. In short, the best “core training” out there is the proper execution of the larger movements with planned changes in loading so all of those muscles adapt by becoming stronger. Stronger muscles stabilize more effectively and a more effectively stabilized spine equals a stronger “core” – and I wouldn’t mind if that were the last time I have to use that word.