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The core of fitness

The core of fitness

The ‘body core’ is the group of muscles that keeps us upright, strong and flexible. A strong core is the foundation of all fitness.  What muscles are involved and how can we improve their strength, stamina and tone?

Mention the concept of ‘core fitness’ and the immediate association is the image of a flat, toned stomach. Most people’s wish-list for a better body will include a flatter stomach, especially in summer when more of it is likely to be on show. A strong flat stomach is also part of the Western ideal for the male body – most men will want to have a ‘six pack’ rather than a beer gut.

For women, a slightly curving stomach is often considered quite attractive, and of course the splendid curves of pregnancy have been celebrated since Demi Moore stripped off for that magazine cover. Outside those nine months and the ensuing recovery time, most women do prefer it if their stomach does not come into the room before the rest of their body!

Strengthening the abdominal muscles is important for more reasons than appearance.  As well as improving appearance, there is now strong evidence that those who carry weight around their stomachs may be more susceptible to heart problems. Women may bemoan their ‘pear-shaped’ figures, but this may be healthier than those tending towards the apple shape. The NHS has recently started measuring waist circumference as part of health checks - a wider waist can indicate too much fat being stored near vital organs.

The stomach muscles cannot be considered in isolation – they are only part of the ‘body core’ muscles which are vital for basic stability. Without basic strength in the core muscles of the torso it is not possible to stand upright or walk. The muscle groups of the stomach, back, thighs and hips are essential to our posture on two feet and are the foundation for all our activities.  All these muscles work together and all need to be exercised equally. Concentrating solely on stomach muscles can actually cause problems if the other muscles are not providing a balance to them.

The main core muscle groups to consider for core strength are:

  • Hips – weakness in these can have far reaching effects. Like all muscles in the body, these work as a pair – muscles can only pull by contracting, and so need an opposing set to return to the original position. In the hips, the abductors pull the leg away from the body, and the flexors pull the leg towards the body. These muscles need to be strong to support the hips, which provide a secure platform for both upper and lower body. Balance between these two muscle sets is also important to protect the knees. If one set is stronger than the other, the kneecap may not track correctly, causing pain when walking or running. This can lead to further knee problems as the kneecap begins to wear on the underlying bones.
  • Back – several sets of muscles support your back and allow the spine to extend and twist. Strong back muscles work with strong stomach muscles to keep the body mobile in everyday life and able to cope with sporting demands.
  • Stomach – the oblique and transverse muscles work with the back muscles to assist in supporting the spine.  Modern life places great strain on the spine, as most people know to their cost, and working these groups supports the spine and reduces the chances of pain or lost mobility.
  • Gluteus group – most people know the location of the gluteus maximus, but there are also gluteus medius and minimus muscles at the side of the hips. These support the upright posture as well as working with the leg muscles.

Like all the muscles in the body, the structures of the core need strength, stamina and tone. ‘Strength’ refers to their ability to perform under load. ‘Stamina’ is the ability to continue performing for extended periods of time. ‘Tone’ is the residual firmness of the muscles when not actively working – muscle tone holds us together and keeps our bodies ready for greater demands. Toned muscles also look defined and smooth.

Knowing which muscles need to be improved – what exercises are suitable for improving core strength? Your gym staff or personal trainer will be able to show you the detail of these, but here is a brief list of exercises to consider.

  • Plank – the precursor to the push up, with the forearms kept on the floor. Maintain a straight line from shoulders to toes and try to work up to holding for 60 seconds.
  • Back bridge – great for abs and gluteal muscles, simply lie on your back and then raise your hips so that there is a straight line between knees and shoulders. Pull in stomach muscles and aim to hold for 30 seconds. Move on to the one-leg bridge which is much more difficult than it looks.
  • Push ups – most people know how to do these, but make very sure that your back stays straight with no sagging hips or arched spine.
  • Squats – simple unweighted squats are a good starter exercise. Knees should not go further forward than heels, and you should never bounce into or out of a squat. Use of weights can be added later, but this should always be done under trained supervision.

Body core exercise is central to fitness – make it the ‘core’ of your workout.