What's So Important About Core Strength?

09/10/2011 10:24 am ET | Updated Nov 10, 2011

By Elizabeth Nolan Brown for Blisstree.com

"Core strength" has been something of a buzz term recently, but I admit -- until yesterday, I wasn’t sure what the big deal was all about. Isn’t core training just a fancy way of saying toning your abs? Our moms used to simply call this "doing sit-ups."

But there’s way more to core training than the abdominals (and getting a flat tummy), says Dena Stern, personal trainer and managing editor of Exercise.com. I spoke with Stern yesterday about why core strength is so important -- and easy ways you can add more of it to your workout routine.

What exactly is "core strength" or "core training?"

Core training does two really important things -- it helps you look thinner, and it supports your spine and helps with things like balance. I noticed when I started doing Pilates and a lot of core engagement that it got easier to snowboard, or do complicated yoga poses, also. Those core muscles ares connected to your legs, to the way you stand, squat, sit. It’s not just about the abdominal muscles, but also training your back, your glutes, and the entire area that connects to your spinal cord and helps your body support your spine, so that the burden of supporting your body weight isn’t just placed on your bones.

The core is actually made up of three sheaths of muscles: The upper abs, the side muscles, which are called the obliques, and then this very deep layer of muscle. Those deep muscles are the ones that do all the good stuff, like support your spine and act as a natural corset—so when you work them not only do you get a flatter stomach but a tighter stomach.

What’s the difference between core training and working your abs?

The difference between core and abdominal training is that you’re not just targeting the front side of the body but the back side as well. A core workout will also include the erector spinae, which are he muscles that make up your back, and also your glutes. A movement that works your core is going to work more than one muscle group, and you’re going to see results a lot faster.

So are crunches useless?

Crunches are really important, because before you can engage your deeper core, you need that strength in your abdominal muscles. You have to build that strength, and doing crunches is a great way for somebody to build up, to work towards getting a stronger core.

I think crunches are boring, and people hate them, so the idea of doing a lot of crunches doesn’t get people excited about exercise. Given a minute, I can think of four exercises other than crunches with no equipment that would give you results faster. But there are ways to make a crunch more challenging. Introducing instability is one of my favorites. Doing a crunch on a ball, or a foam roller, your body is going to be balancing so you won’t just be working the abs, you’ll be stabilizing the core.

There’s no such thing as a "bad" exercise -- my personal opinion is anything you like enough to do is good. I like to do crunches when I’m sitting home watching TV, instead of reaching for the chips. What’s important about a crunch is doing it correctly -- drawing your belly button toward your spine, moving your ribs toward your hips, moving your shoulders up to you chest -- but its a small movement. That movement should be incredibly challenging, and it doesn’t get easier. If you do it with mind-fullness, it can be a challenging exercise.

Why does core strength matter so much, anyway?

This is one of my favorite topics! The reason I became an advocate for core-training was my mother. We’re both kind of top-heavy women, and after 50 years supporting the weight of her own body, she starting having bone spurs poking out of her spine. She had to get a very serious surgery. And her doctor told her, "You have a daughter, right? Tell her she should start working her core now," because it’s so much easier to build core strength now and just keep it up as you get older.

It’s not just about looking good in a bikini -- core training is something I can do to take care of my body as I age, you know? I sit at a desk at a computer all day, 12 hours a day, and this is a way that I can keep myself from having horrible back pain as I age.

What are the best workouts for building core strength?

If people want to really improve their core strength, introducing instability into workouts they’re already doing and Pilates are both really great ways. I love Pilates. If you’re looking for one exercise that does get results in your core, definitely Pilates. I do exercise that are a mix of Pilates and yoga -- doing a plank or a superman or Hundreds, you’re forcing the muscles to work together, instead of just isolating a specific muscle like you do in strength training.

I would also say any exercise you do on a Bosu -- it’s like half of an exercise ball on a flat black surface, and they’re fantastic. When I do squats, I do them on a Bosu -- just flip it over and do it on the back side. Or I’ll do lunges with one foot on the Bosu. It engages your core, because you have to stabilize yourself on that surface. Try introducing instability into every exercise you do.

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