Understanding and improving core strength

Lauren Elson, MD

Contributor

When most people think about core strength, they think about an abdominal six-pack. While it looks good, this toned outer layer of abdominal musculature is not the same as a strong core.

What is the “core” and why is core strength so important?

The core is a group of muscles that stabilizes and controls the pelvis and spine (and therefore influences the legs and upper body). Core strength is less about power and more about the subtleties of being able to maintain the body in ideal postures — to unload the joints and promote ease of movement. For the average person, this helps them maintain the ability to get on and off the floor to play with their children or grandchildren, stand up from a chair, sit comfortably at a desk, or vacuum and rake without pain. For athletes, it promotes more efficient movement, therefore preventing injury and improving performance. Having a strong or stable core can often prevent overuse injuries, and can help boost resiliency and ease of rehab from acute injury. The core also includes the pelvic floor musculature, and maintaining core stability can help treat and prevent certain types of incontinence.

The problem with a weak core

As we age, we develop degenerative changes, very often in the spine. The structures of the bones and cartilage are subject to wear and tear. Very often, we are able to completely control and eliminate symptoms with the appropriate core exercises. Having strong and stable postural muscles helps suspend the bones and other structures, allowing them to move better. Scoliosis, a curving or rotation of the spine, can also often be controlled with the correct postural exercises. Having an imbalanced core can lead to problems up and down the body. Knee pain is often caused by insufficient pelvic stabilization. Some runners develop neck and back pain when running because the “shock absorbers” in their core could use some work.

Finding the right core strengthening program for you

A good core program relies less on mindless repetition of exercise and focuses more on awareness. People with good core strength learn to identify and activate the muscles needed to accomplish the task. Learning to activate the core requires concentration, and leads to being more in tune with the body.

There is no one method of core strengthening that works for everyone. Some people do well with classes (though it can be easy do the repetitions without truly understanding the targeted muscle groups). Others use Pilates or yoga to discover where their core is. Physical therapists are excellent resources, as they can provide one-on-one instruction and find a method that works for any person with any background at any ability level. It sometimes takes patience for people to “find” their core, but once they do, it can be engaged and activated during any activity — including walking, driving, and sitting. While building the core starts with awareness and control, athletes can further challenge their stability with more complex movements that can be guided by athletic trainers and other fitness specialists.

Daily practice of core engagement can lead to healthier movement patterns that allow for increased mobility and independence throughout the course of our lives.

Related Information: An Introduction to Tai Chi

Comments:

  1. Alfreda Benson

    I have spinal stenosis and am 86. I feel I need to take up core exercises so I can strengthen my back and legs. I have to walk with a cane and walker.

  2. Cathy

    Will have to look up front and side planks. Up to this point I only know of plank. Thanks for your comment Robert Goldfarb.

  3. Rahul Sharma

    Half hearted write-up. Where are the ways or exercises to strengthen up core? Planks or any activity which challenges lambo-pelvic-hip complex does wonder for core.

  4. Allen Morton

    I am impressed by the article about body core. Great information. I learned the major importance of my body core after being severely affected by acute Guillain Barre Syndrome many years ago. In all the many therapy sessions I’ve experienced over the years, I had the most success in healing and strengthening of my core from Pilates in a studio using a therapy table and Pilates sliding and circular motion machines, and also physical therapy in a pool. Not to say that general physical and occupational therapies weren’t useful; they were. Unfortunately it is not uncommon to sometimes find therapists believing that the process of “no pain, no gain” applies to persons whose nerve and muscle functions are compromised by acute GBS or chronic CIDP (both are peripheral neuropathies). In these cases the person is best served by rest when the pain threshold is reached during therapy session. I didn’t know this fact early after my lengthy hospitalization, and I allowed a physical therapist to take me way past my pain threshold. I am fortunate I did not get injured, and the only benefit I gained after screaming and crying for about 15 minutes during each session, was a strong natural dose of endorphins produced by my body, which made me feel like superman for a few hours, but the therapy itself produced no forward movement in the goal set for my compromised physical condition. Always refer to “best practice guidance documents” such as the one my occupational therapist showed me after finding out about my physical therapy “torture” sessions. In that document it stated that this type of patient should not be taken past their pain threshold. Also, there is a non-profit Foundation that provides peer-reviewed downloadable guidance documents related to therapy for GBS and CIDP persons. In summary, core conditioning is always extremely important.

  5. Gary Hynous

    I first became aware of core and core fitness when I began training in Aikido, a Japanese martial art. Our core was referred to as our center or our one point. The idea was that our energy was derived from and developed through increased awareness of our core and a focus on this area when executing a technique. Aikido does not rely on muscle strength but primarily on core strength. Core is much more powerful than muscle as I learned from our 6th degree instructor! Thanks for this helpful and informative article.

  6. Rosario Beck

    I was diagnosed with arthritis last year. My physician told me that the only way to combat pain was not medication but exercise. She then recommended that I should start walking in order to reinforce musculature. I started walking and at the same time I started making yoga. One year after I can say that pain is almost gone.

  7. Kathy

    Good explanation. Thanks!

  8. Eulas Kirtdoll

    Good information.

  9. Robert Goldfarb

    I’m 88 and want to avoid the slumping posture I see in many people my age. I’ve found a combination of front and side planks, yoga, balance exercises and—importantly—self-admonitions to “Stand up straight!’ have been very effective. Being mindful of posture and balance is as important as the physical effort.

  10. About Creativity

    We walk.

  11. Jenny Townsend

    The 6-pack abdominal muscles are repulsive. Being an aesthete across the disciplines, I am affronted by those creepy lumps sticking out like dinner rolls from suburb City. Keep the shirts ON!

Post a Comment:

This blog aims to provide reliable information as well as healthy dialog about the topics covered. We do not provide responses to personal medical concerns nor do we endorse any recommendations offered in the comments. We reserve the right to delete comments for any reason, particularly those that do not relate directly to the contents of this post, are commercial in nature, contain objectionable or inappropriate material, or otherwise violate our Privacy Policy. Promotional URLs will be removed from comments. Comments on this blog do not represent the views of our editors or Harvard University, and have not been checked for accuracy. All comments submitted to this site become the non-exclusive property of Harvard University.