What is a “Core” and Why Do I Need One?

IMG_4645The best nutrition and fitness conversations happen at the hairdresser. The lady next to me last week, hair full of metal pieces for her dye job, was telling the hairstylist about a woman at her work who is really into fitness. This fitness girl suggested that the hair woman build up her “core”. Fitness girl proceeded to get down on the floor on her hands and toes and balance in a plank. The woman was incredulous – “I could never do that! I can’t hold my body up like that!”. She dismissed the entire thought: “what is a core and why do I need one anyway?”

She’s right. Why would a person work out their core if they didn’t know what it is or why it is important? If you’ve never done it before, you probably will not start out by balancing in a perfect plank on your toes. But what the woman getting her hair done doesn’t know could hurt her…core strength is the foundation our movement and balance. It also protects the back from injury as it stabilizes  the spine, pelvis, ribs and hips. I have witnessed people with underdeveloped core muscles be unable to do walking lunges because they cannot stabilize their core and lack the balance and strength to complete this activity, not regarding leg strength but trunk strength. We so rarely use one muscle or group of muscles in isolation; everything is connected. Click To Tweet  How’s your core? Read on for tips on how to work these vital muscles.

 Working out your core moves beyond crunches. Sit-ups and such work the abdominal muscles but do not support the deeper muscles in the core area or the back muscles. Whenever you read about core workouts, the most commonly recommended activity is a plank. A plank can be done on the elbows or hands and on the toes or knees. Starting out, I recommend a hands and knees combination. If you are brand new to planks, try holding the exercise for 10 seconds at a time and increase as you can, working up to one minute or more. No matter what position your plank is in, be sure that your stomach and pelvis are not hanging low and your bottom is not pointing upwards into a pike. There are many variations of a basic plank; challenge yourself by planking on your toes and either elbows or knees and eventually test yourself by lifting one leg at a time off the ground and holding it steady. Increase the length of time you can hold and incorporate a plank into your weekly routine.

Because the core muscles wrap around the entirety of the trunk area, it is important to also work the side muscles or obliques. A side plankindex is very similar to a normal plank. In the position I am in holding in my picture here, I would simply lift my left arm and turn my left hip so it is pointing upwards, balancing on either my knees or the side of my left foot. Be sure to train both sides equally. In this position, you can eventually challenge yourself by holding the side plank on your feet and hand or elbow, lifting the top foot up and holding it or slightly dipping the bottom hip towards the floor and back up to further work those muscles.

Yoga is a wonderful practice to strengthen the core, but you can utilize some of the basic poses any time to help work your core. Try cat-cow where on hands and knees, you move between rounding your back towards the ceiling, curving head and bottom down and then conversely  pointing your abdomen towards the floor. You can also strengthen the core by starting in the same position and testing your strength and balance by lifting opposite arm and leg off the floor and holding that position for increasing amounts of time.

There are so many other exercises to practice for core strength: a variety of abdominal and oblique exercises, back extensions, handing knee lifts, bridges and hip lifts. To incorporate more of these exercises, work with a fitness professional, especially if you have any type of injury or limitations to these types of movements. Building up the core takes time and practice, but if you do it correctly, you can improve your balance, stability, agility, and potentially prevent future injury.

Do you have any favorite core exercises I’m leaving out? What has worked for you in core training?  Do you think it is important?  Looking forward to hearing more from you! 



Ginger Hultin,MS, RD, CSO

An award-winning, nationally recognized nutrition expert and media spokesperson.

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