Updated: Feb 1
There is a lot of information and exercises about core muscle strength. Most people will agree that they need it, but very few know what it is. So, let’s break it down.
First, I want to clarify four areas of confusion about core muscle strength right off the bat. These are the biggest areas of misconception that I hear with the people I work with.
A) The core cannot be strong if you do not have a flat stomach or 6 pack abs
B) Sit ups are the best way to strengthen your core
C) All core exercises are good for everyone
D) You have to do a lot of strenuous exercises to strengthen your core
Core strength is really less to do with what you look like (though it certainly help with this) and everything to do with how you feel and what you can do with your body.
The core is made up muscles from abdomen, back, pelvis, hips. Even the diaphragm plays a massive role in core stability. The glutes also strongly influence how efficient your core strength/stabilization is.
So, why should you care what your core muscles are doing? Well, to put it simply, the core muscles are responsible for supporting your neck, back, and pelvis so that you do not injure your spine AND allow you to use your arms and legs to do the activities that you enjoy.
They do this by increasing the pressure inside of your abdomen so that your spine is supported. A soda can with soda in it is much stronger if stepped on than an empty can because of the internal pressure of the soda adding support to the can.
Just like a soda can, without this balance of internal pressure, your spine would compress under the weight of gravity and whatever activities you may be doing.
Even the simple act of walking causes forces to come through the spine-which comes down through head from gravity AND upwards through your feet from contact with the floor.
If there is nothing to support the spine and pelvis when these forces meet in the middle, then things do not go so well for your spine. In other words, weakness of the core muscles has a direct impact on low back pain and injury.
Things that I see in the clinic every day due to poor core strength include:
Difficulty playing sports
Decreased tolerance to lifting things in daily activities
Inability to tolerate fitness activities
Decreased walking tolerance
Pain or fatigue with attempts at an active lifestyle
This is not an exclusive list, but they are the most common. Let’s chat a bit more about the four misconceptions I mentioned above.
1. The core muscles cannot be strong if you do not have a flat stomach or 6-pack abs
FALSE! The abdominal muscles that give us the look of “6-pack abs” are quite superficial or close to the surface of the body, while the majority of core muscles are actually quite deep. The appearance of having “ripped” abs has a lot to do with the tone of these surface muscles for certain, but how much body fat that is on top of them is actually a much bigger factor. One can have very toned abdominal muscles, but if he or she has increased amount of stored body fat on top of those muscles, you will not see that tone. Therefore, having both components of toned abdominals with lower body fat over those abdominals are necessary for a flat belly.
NOTE: there are 2 types of stored fat: subcutaneous fat which sits over the ab muscles and visceral fat which is stored under the muscles and around the organs. The presence of increased visceral fat is a health risk, as this type of fat surrounds the organs and puts one at risk for diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
2. Sit ups are a good way to strengthen your core
FALSE! As I said previously, the core muscles are responsible for increasing internal abdominal pressure to help “stiffen” or support the spine. This is not just needed while one is standing still, but this pressure also has to be maintained while the body is moving. This means supporting the spine while you may be twisting, bending, reaching, lifting, shifting your weight, or even when you may be off balance.
Sit-ups to not train these muscles in this way-NOT AT ALL. Sit ups just cause flexion of the spine. That is it.
Good core exercises challenge the core muscles to maintain neutral spine position while you are doing something else with your arms and legs, as well as when you are working in unbalanced positions. There are a variety of ways to achieve this, but sit ups are not one of them.
3. All core exercises are good for everyone
FALSE!!! This statement gets 3 exclamation points because this is the area I spend a HUGE amount of time discussing with my patients. In the majority of cases, it is not that a certain exercise that is bad (though, there are a few out there), but rather that an individual is not ready for a certain exercise.
This is an extremely important distinction. In order for a core exercise to be effective, it must challenge the core muscles in a given position or during a particular movement pattern. However, the person exercising must be strong enough handle the challenge of the core exercise while maintaining the correct body position throughout the exercise.
If one is not strong enough to maintain proper form, then they have no choice but to compensate and this is when things go haywire. Compensation causes other muscles to jump in and help and this forces them to work in ways they are not meant to. At best gets you no benefit from the exercise and at worst it can cause injury.
Doing core strengthening exercises without being able to maintain proper form is like going to high school before kindergarten-your body is not ready for it.
Although a particular exercise may be a fantastic exercise, if you have to “cheat” to get it done because the core muscles are not strong enough then it is a bad exercise for you -
AT. THAT. TIME.
This is important because you don’t just give up the exercise and say “I just can’t do that one”. You drop back, start with a modified exercise at a level in which you can maintain good form and build up your strength from there. As you get stronger, you should change the core exercises to increase the challenge.
Just like you would not say to a third grader, “well you just cannot do trigonometry”, you would teach them easier forms of math, ultimately building them up to having the tools to understand trigonometry. Core strengthening works the same.
That is why progressive core strengthening programs are the most effective. It is not about looking up a bunch of exercises on You Tube and giving them a shot. You should have a systematic, progressive plan that challenges you, but in a way that your body can manage.
Since everyone is different and at different strength levels in their fitness experience, not every core exercise or program is right for everyone. You just need to start where you are and build up from there.
4. You have to do a lot of strenuous exercises to strengthen your core
FALSE! This is a huge misunderstanding I have to clarify with the individuals that I work with. You do not need a lot of exercises, but you do need specific, TARGETED exercises that you can properly perform.
I do not give my patients more than 3 to 5 exercises at a time. They need little to no equipment, can do them in their home, and work on each level of the program for anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks before I progress them to the next level.
It really is not the overwhelming prospect that it can seem. I also work on core strengthening with people of varying ages and ability levels, as well as those who do have pre-existing pain or injury.
Having a “bad” back does not preclude you from working on your core, rather it means it is even more important that you do!!!! You just need to do so safely and systematically.
I hope this helped to clarify more about just what it means to strengthen your core and take away some of the apprehension about the ability to start a core program of you own.
Core strengthening is important now more than ever given how much time we are on technology. Our increasing sedentary lifestyles do not help as well. All this actually expedites weakening of the core muscles and the reason I spend so much time dealing with it in my practice.
If you are interested in some basic, very beginner core exercises, you may find some here.
I have also written a full core strengthening video program and it will consist of 4 zones, the next level progressing from the last in the systematic way that I discussed above. The first 2 zones are ready and are for beginners, people with injury concerns, and/or people who have been away from exercise for awhile.
Go to Online Courses and you will be able to enroll from there.
Starting a core muscle strengthening program on you own before you have pain is even that much more effective in staying healthy, well, and mobile. I hope that continue to experience all three of these!
Stay well & Feel Good,
Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. Consult with your healthcare professional to design an appropriate exercise prescription. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop and consult your healthcare provider.
Hi! I am Dr. Kim MacDonald. I am a physical therapist who specializes in empowering my patients to optimize how they move their bodies and improve their ability to do the things they love regardless of age, experience, or capabilities.
My experience in the health care field allows me to teach the tools you need to ensure that you are working safely to improve your pain and maximize your physical potential.
If you would like to know more about how you can help yourself be healthier and live a more active lifestyle, join me here
If you are having back pain or sciatica and cannot get relief, check out my short Soothe Your Spine video course on what you should be doing to reduce your pain