Core conditioning: It's not just about abs
Many of us have wished for flatter stomachs, a goal that seems more frustrating and elusive the older we get. You might have been tempted by infomercials for exercise devices or breathless magazine articles promising "flat abs" and tighter tummies "in just days." Despite the hype, spot exercising abdominal muscles won't get rid of fat. The only way to do that is to expend more calories than you take in. Working these muscles has its place, but the smart money these days is on strengthening a variety of trunk muscles, collectively known as "the core."
Core conditioning improves posture, which contributes to a trimmer appearance. Moreover, developing core muscle strength can boost the effectiveness of workouts and reduce the risk of injuries that sideline our efforts to stay in shape.
Getting at the core
If you've ever had physical therapy to treat low back pain, you're probably familiar with the concept of strengthening the core — the muscles in the abdomen, lower back, and pelvis that lie roughly between the rib cage and the hips. The strength and coordination of these muscles is important not only for sports and fitness routines but also for daily life — for example, reaching up to a shelf, lifting a child, or sponging a spot off the floor.
The current drive behind core conditioning comes in part from studies conducted in the 1990s showing that before they move an arm or leg, people with healthy backs automatically contract their core muscles. Experts concluded that well-coordinated core muscle use stabilizes the spine and helps create a firm base of support for virtually all movement.
Exercises that strengthen abdominal and other core muscles should be part of an overall fitness plan that includes regular moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and 20 to 30 minutes of strength training two to three times a week
To be safe and effective, core muscle strengthening exercises require proper alignment and progression from one type of exercise to another — adjusted to your body and fitness level. So you may want to ask a physical therapist or exercise professional for help in planning a program for you. (If you haven't been physically active or have back problems or some other medical condition, consult a clinician before embarking on any fitness program.)
You'll probably start by learning how to "draw in". Here's what you do: Sitting, standing, or lying on your back, gently but firmly tighten the abdominal muscles, drawing the navel in toward the small of the back. The tailbone should be slightly tucked. (Some trainers prefer to call it "bracing" the muscles, as if you were preparing to take a punch in the stomach.) Practice holding this position for 10 seconds at a time while breathing normally. Once you get the hang of drawing in, you can start doing some core exercises.
Below are just a few exercises that can help strengthen core muscles. Concentrate on performing the exercises correctly, not on the number of repetitions or how quickly you can do them. And don't forget to breathe!
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place your fingertips at the back of your head. Tighten your abdominal muscles; then curl your upper body forward, lifting your shoulder blades off the floor. Hold for one or two seconds. Slowly lower halfway to the floor; then repeat. Work up to 12 to 16 crunches.
Lie stomach-down on a mat, resting on your forearms. Tighten your abdominal muscles, and press up so you're balanced on your toes and elbows (see illustration). Don't let your hips sag or stick up: your body should be in a straight line from head to heels. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds; then lower and repeat a few more times. Work up to holding the plank position for 60 seconds.
Lie flat on the floor on your back. Place your fingertips at the back of your head. Tighten your abdominal muscles, bring your knees up to a 45-degree angle, and lift your shoulder blades off the ground. Turn your upper body to the left, bringing the right elbow toward the left knee and extending your right leg (see illustration). Switch sides, bringing the left elbow toward the right knee. Continue this pedaling motion, slowly, for a total of 12 to 16 repetitions. Rest and repeat. Note: Avoid pulling on the neck.
Because the ball is intrinsically unstable, core muscle activity is greater when you perform certain exercises on it than when you perform the same exercises on a stable surface.
Arm and leg raise on the ball
Lie over the ball so that your hips are on top of it and your legs are straight. Toes and fingers should comfortably reach the floor. Tighten your stomach muscles, then lift your right arm and left leg (see illustration). Hold for five seconds; rest a moment; then repeat with the left arm and right leg. Do eight to 12 repetitions. When you're ready for more, try lifting the same leg and arm.
November 2008 update