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Demystifying core training

By Joseph Carman

The term "core training" often prompts a confused reaction, something halfway between glazed eyes and a feigned acknowledgement of the true meaning. Its dry connotation doesn't do it justice. In reality, core training supplies a solid base for strength, stamina, and correct form in most sports. And you know the result when you see it, because when a guy who's committed to core training walks into the room, his sexy posture and confident stance give him away.

Simply put, core training strengthens the muscles of the torso, pelvis, and back, allowing them to work in concert as a physical foundation. From the power of that center, the arms and legs can move fully and freely without additional strain. Think of Greg Louganis jackknifing in a dive or Lance Armstrong powering himself up the steep grade of a hill. That's core strength.

So specifically which muscles are involved? Start with the abdominals: the rectus abdominis (the "six pack"), the obliques (running diagonally toward the pubic bone), and the transverse abdominis (deep below the six-pack). The back contains crucial stabilizing musculature: the spinal erectors (dual muscular columns on either side of the spine), the trapezius and rhomboids (to stabilize the shoulder blades), and the latissimus dorsi ("lats" to you), which involve arm movement. In the pelvic area, there are the hip flexors that allow you to raise your leg (like iliopsoas and rectus femoris), as well as hip rotators (with more confusing Latin names). The hamstrings, abductors, and adductors provide an important pelvic-leg connection. And finally, there are the gluteals, which allow for powerful backward kicking—and much, much more.

When participating in sports activities, an athlete is only as strong as his weakest muscular link. Therefore, a prime objective of core training is to strengthen muscle groups in correct proportion. A swimmer with weak abdominals and a tight lower back, for example, will probably be the last Speedo to tap the wall.

A host of exercises exist to augment core training: crunches and leg raises for the abs, Pilates for the flexibility and strength of the hips, pull-downs for the lats, and leg presses for sustained leg and hip power. Trainers often favor wobble boards to enhance the coordination of the muscles of the trunk. Medicine balls can also be thrown and caught, either on movable or stable platforms, to rout out physical weaknesses. (Twisting movements using medicine balls are especially beneficial.) Generally, core training should be done at the beginning of a workout, starting with light loads at moderate speed and progressing to heavier loads with explosive movements.

Bridges qualify as a cornerstone exercise of core training. Here are three examples to try on a floor mat:

  1. Prone bridge: In a prone position (face down), balance on the tips of the toes and elbows and maintain a straight line from your head to your feet. This makes the front and back muscles of the trunk work in tandem.
  2. Lateral bridge: In a sideways position, balance on one elbow and the side of one foot. This requires a coordination of the abs and the pelvis.
  3. Supine bridge: Lying face-up, raise the hips so that only the head, shoulders, and feet touch the mat. This strengthens the glutes.
Try these bridges three times a week for one to five minutes in each position, depending on your conditioning.

Whether cycling, running, pitching, wrestling, or Kung Fu fighting, core training can supply an extra edge. Core strength generates a sustainable source of power and prevents injuries.

Joseph Carman is a contributing editor for >Dance Magazine who writes for the New York Times and the Advocate, as well as other publications. A former professional dancer, he is now a bodybuilder and the author of Round About the Ballet (Limelight Editions, 2004).