Whenever we see or hear the word “core,” thoughts of grueling strength sessions, sweat, and six-pack abs come to mind. Many think that so-called core muscles are comprised only of anaerobic fibers, and the abdominals, and bulking them up is how to have a great-looking, lean, and sexy power core. Conventional gym workouts include endless crunches and sit ups, with a bunch of weights thrown in, all with a high-rep, fatiguing approach, followed by the 48-hour rest, then doing it all again.
What if this is all wrong? Moreover, what if this fitness obsession to have ripped abs is actually unhealthy for the body? To answer both questions, let’s look at the overall picture.
Core is So Out
Despite its appearance in virtually every fitness magazine on the planet, the four-letter little term is really no more than a great marketing buzzword designed to attract reader interest. Core is often associated with weight loss and getting rid of unwanted belly fat. But “core” is too restrictive, a vague, confusing and ever changing term. Instead, endurance athletes and fitness-minded individuals need to shift their interest to and begin improving their central balance.
Central balance refers to the muscular control of the entire trunk. Impairment here can be the cause of many types of injuries throughout the body. Because these muscles continuously send important information to the brain, this also impacts on overall body balance, including posture and gait.
Related to issues of imbalance is too much stored central body fat, especially in and around the abdomen. This excess fat poses serious health and fitness consequences, even in relatively smaller amounts. Many people are accepting of a few added inches to their waist as the years pass. I used to suggest that being within a couple of inches of ones high school graduation belt size is a good general measure—but in recent years the epidemic of overfat children makes that notion obsolete. Most people know when they have too much central fat, and are aware of an increasing waist size.
Over the past 35 years I’ve evaluated thousands of athletes, active people and out-of-shape individuals. Two of the most significant abnormal findings common to all were poor central balance, and too much belly fat. These two problems are often related, and always serious. Both affect movement and physical performance, and can contribute to spinal pain, foot and knee problems, and many other exercise-related injuries. There are metabolic consequences too, including lower energy, chronic illness, and increased overall body fat and weight.
When standing up straight, a balanced body’s center of gravity is in the pelvis, just in front of the sacrum (the bone that connects the bottom of the spine to the two large pelvic bones). But this center point is always shifting, sometimes significantly, each time we change body positions. The muscles in the trunk, controlled by the brain, manage these changes to best regulate central balance.
Without seeming too simplistic, let’s better define the central body. Our anatomy is primarily composed of a) a central component, and b) all the rest:
- The central component is the trunk, our body’s hub, whose functional parts include the abdomen from chest to pelvis, and the back from the bottom of the neck down to the pelvis. It includes the sides of the trunk too, and more than just the main outer muscles, the abdominals and sacrospinalis. Unseen muscles such as the psoas are just as important. Our hub plays a vital role in stability and movement, maintaining proper posture and gait, and protecting organs, glands, and nerves (including the spinal cord). The central body’s many potential motions help coordinate the arms, legs and neck to move well.
- In the rest of the body, our arms, legs and neck, attach to the central part like tentacles sensing the world. Our feet feel the ground to better propel us, and our fingers sense the environment above. The information received is sent up through the neck and into the brain.
Central balance refers to the optimal stabilization and movement of the body’s trunk. Among the muscles accomplishing this are a key trio that includes the abdominals, psoas, and sacrospinalis.
- The importance of the abdominals was extensively discussed in a recent article. These muscles wrap around the trunk, on our front, sides and back, to create unlimited movement potential, along with significant stability so our arms, legs and neck can move effectively.
- The psoas is a large muscle connecting to the discs of the lower six spinal vertebra, then traveling through the pelvis attaching to the inside front of the femur (thigh bone) just below the hip joint. The actions of this muscle are wide-ranging and include flexion and lateral bending of the trunk, extending the low back, and flexion of the hip/thigh forward. It also outwardly rotates the leg, influencing placement of the foot and ankle during gait (and, when unbalanced can contribute to excess pronation). The psoas, an important stabilizer of the low back, pelvis, and hip, usually works together with the iliacus muscle, and is referred to as the iliopsoas.
- The Sacrospinalis (also called the erector spinae) is comprised of a large group of smaller back muscles on either side of the spine. It attaches on the vertebra and ribs and from the pelvis to the head. This muscle extends the back, laterally bends it, and is important for many spinal movements.
Along with the abdominals, the sacrospinalis and psoas greatly assist in stabilizing the central body so other muscles above and below can better perform their actions. These muscles also perform important duel actions, such as body rotation combined with stability.
Stabilization and movement of the trunk is ongoing and requires endurance. The particular muscle fibers performing this task are the aerobic ones, possessing long-term, fatigue-resistant motions, with anaerobic ones used for quick, short actions. So the best workouts for central balance are not endless sit ups, which usually just develops anaerobic bulk. Instead, the aerobic fibers in all the central muscles need training. Swimming, walking, running, cycling are all very effective. Cross training, which enlists more fibers, is best. These actions will help muscles stabilize and move most effectively, and for many hours. Planks are popular, and good in general for strength, but won’t build the great aerobic foundation necessary for central balance.
For strength, whole body movements using weights are highly effective. This includes squat and deadlift performed with higher weight and less repetitions, and without excess fatigue. (SeeStrength Training.)
All the factors associated with strength and neuromuscular balance, discussed in the article on abdominal muscles, apply to both the psoas and sacrospinalis. In review, just strength training does not guarantee they will function properly as impairment may be due to the brain’s control over them. In addition, stretching these muscles may be harmful too (see Update on Stretching).
Overall, the most common pattern of imbalance in this trio of muscles is as follows:
- Weakness or poor strength of the psoas
- Weakness or poor strength of the abdominals.
- Tightness of the sacrospinalis.
In the scenario above, the psoas and or abdominals usually weaken causing secondary tightness of the sacrospinalis. When this situation exists the most common symptom is pain, typically in the low back, but groin, hip, pelvic or other areas are not unusual. The most common sign is a distortion of posture and gait as these muscles are vital for smooth movements whether walking, running, biking, swimming or anything else.
Of course, any combination of problems is possible in a given individual. Most importantly, you should have good balance between these three muscles because they play a significant role in your central balance. Even minor muscle impairment can have devastating consequences anywhere in the body, from head to toe.
Of course, there are other central muscles that are important as well. These include the diaphragm, latissimus dorsi, gluteus medius and maximus, the mid and lower trapezius, and others. The fact is, all the body’s major muscles are vital for overall function. But significantly more people have imbalances in the trio of muscles described above.
If you really want to show off gut muscles, the best way is to reduce the stored fat covering them up—this means addressing central fat, the topic of Part 2 of this article.