Having six-pack abs is the goal of many exercisers. Some focus on working abdominal muscles to achieve a certain look or mistakenly believe strong abs are the best defense against back problems. Rather than focus on one muscle group, the abdominals, personal trainers suggest building core strength.
The core includes muscle groups in the body’s trunk, including the abdominals. Other major muscles are the multifidus, internal and external obliques, the erector spine, diaphragm, and pelvic floor muscles.
“Core strength is essential for injury prevention, daily activities of life, sports and athletics, balance, and overall healthy way of living,” said Leslie Gordillo, BS, CPT, CNC.
“Having a strong core is very important in lowering the risk of injury, specifically back injuries. It also helps improve stability, posture, and overall athletic performance. Individuals who strengthen their core often find they improve their lifting mechanics, form, and technique, which ties back into injury prevention,” said Nevin Williams, BS, CCES.
Beginners should incorporate core work two or three times weekly with other strengthening exercises. Both Gordillo and Williams recommend starting with planks. A plank, said Williams is “an excellent core exercise because of how versatile it is.” Planks can be modified for the special population he works with at the University of Northern Colorado Cancer Rehabilitation Institute. High or low counter planks can be used for beginners. The plank can also be modified to make it harder. Gordillo suggests adding other equipment such as a body ball to advance the exercise.
Williams recommends intermediate exercisers use bird dogs to build core muscles. “Bird dog is a core exercise. It also incorporates stability and a little bit of balance,” he said. The exercise is performed by placing the hands and knees on the floor, raising one arm and the opposite leg at the same time while bracing and engaging the core. Williams considers bird dog a very simple and efficient core exercise.
Many basic core exercises can be modified for the elderly or other limited mobility populations, said Gordillo. For example, bird dogs can be done standing against a wall. Doing so is good for the mind because it requires focus on coordination.
One popular abdominal exercise is not recommended by most personal trainers: crunches. Williams said, “Not only is it less efficient, its risk-to-reward ratio is not in the favor of clients who are at higher risk of injury. Crunches are one core exercise that can be easily performed wrong and can cause back and neck pain.”
Gordillo said, “It’s not that they [crunches] are necessarily bad. It is more that there are many different exercises that are more effective.”
Williams said, “Incorporating core strengthening into a well-round exercise routine is very simple. Many exercises you perform throughout an exercise routine that incorporate the chest, the back, the lower body, [will] incorporate the core muscles as well, when they are properly performed.”
Gordillo recommends doing core work first. “Sometimes it’s easy to skip core when you leave it for the end of your workout.”
Claudean Boatman lives in Northern Colorado where she enjoys walking her dogs, doing step workouts, and exercising under the direction of her Cancer Exercise Specialist.