Why Core Strength Workouts Work
Here is a great story by Kevin Hellinker from the Wall Street Journal discussing the benefits of core-strengthening workouts:
The regimen is called “core strength,” and it’s all the rage in fitness. Elite athletes from marathon runners to baseball pitchers are adopting core-strength workouts—that is, bolstering the muscles encasing their torsos from shoulder to thigh—in pursuit of improved performance and fewer injuries. Fitness trainers are preaching it to the masses. Books like “Core Performance,” by NFL Players Association chief fitness trainer Mark Verstegen, hawk its benefits.
Yet when the sales manager at my gym asked about my core-strengthening program, I blanched. Wasn’t it enough that I was running 30 miles a week, swimming and lifting free weights?
That’s too much, she replied, suggesting that I cut back on running and add core-strengthening exercises. I wasn’t even sure what she was talking about.
Of course, I knew about crunches—what we used to call sit-ups—and how they could toughen your abdomen. But it turns out that the abdomen is only as strong as the back, thighs, buttocks and shoulders, the other parts of the pillar. Too many crunches, in combination with running, bench pressing and sitting at a computer, can make a body so front-heavy that it pulls forward into a slouch.
Core-strengthening exercises seek to bolster all the muscles of the torso from top to bottom and front to back, creating a balance that enables athletes to stand tall, limbs in alignment down to their feet and hands. The particular exercises that strengthen core muscles involve stretching and balance routines that also enhance flexibility.
The benefits of core exercises, which are found in predominantly female disciplines like dance, cheerleading, yoga and Pilates, may be particularly unfamiliar to men. In the U.S., about three-quarters of yoga participants are women, as are 90% of Pilates participants.
Men tend to prefer activities that are easily measured and thus turned into competitions. How fast did you run that mile? How much did you bench? You don’t hear them talking much about how well they held their form while balancing on a bosu—a half-ball/half disc contraption—doing lightweight bicep curls.
“Guys in particular have tended to be into quantity, and strengthening your core is about quality of exercise,” says Mr. Verstegen, the pro-football trainer.
So far, only limited scientific support exists for the highly touted benefits of core-strengthening exercise. “Core stability programs in prevention of athletic injuries have not been well studied [and] core programs have not been proven to enhance athletic performance,” University of Colorado School of Medicine researchers wrote in the February 2008 Current Sports Medicine Report.
But, of course, running was good for the heart before scientific research ever proved it so, and research on core strength is relatively new.
Many sports-medicine specialists expect core-strength exercises to become the third leg of public-health recommendations in regard to workouts. Just as cardiovascular exercise is promoted for heart health and resistance training for strong bones, experts expect core-strengthening movements to gain public-health favor for avoiding muscular-skeletal pain and injury, particularly of the neck, back and hips. “In the sports and fitness worlds, the benefits of core strength exercise are accepted facts,” says Bill Sonnemaker, a personal trainer and spokesman for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, an educational association for fitness professionals.
Core training doesn’t require the big equipment that dominates most gyms, such as treadmills and squat racks. It can be done mostly on a mat, often using dumbbells, exercise balls and a bosu. But while I never needed anybody to teach me how to run on a treadmill or slap plates on a bench press, I had no idea how to go about using those aids to help me strengthen my core. So I took the sales manager’s advice and hired a personal trainer, at no small price: $2,490 for 32 sessions, or $78 each.
A trainer isn’t necessary. There is plenty of do-it-yourself literature available on how to strengthen your core, including Mr. Verstegen’s tome. But even if you know which exercises to perform and how, it can help to have a trained eye watching you and correcting your form. Bad form not only diminishes the value of the exercise but can cause injury.
The first time she met me, my trainer, Bridget Curran, said I had bad posture, and after interviewing me said it was probably because of my exercise regimen. Obsessed with running, bench-pressing and crunches, I had front-loaded myself with muscle. She said I needed to strengthen my backside muscles all the way from shoulders to the buttocks.
Also during that first session she noticed that my right foot veered to the right whenever I walked, ran or stood still, as if it wanted to go off by itself. Kicking my foot straight, she said, “We’re going to correct that.”
“It’s been doing that all my life,” I said. “No way that’s going to change.”
My training sessions with Bridget take place twice a week for an hour. A typical session involves about 10 exercises that I do three times apiece. The exercises typically involve lifting weights—and sometimes my own body—from a position that imposes a need for balance.
For instance, I rest the back of my head and shoulders on a large physio-ball, knees bent so that my torso becomes a table top, each hand holding a 30-pound dumbbell. Then I rip off 30 chest presses. On a bench, the burn from a chest press is concentrated in the arms and upper body. But without a bench, that burn extends down the abdomen into the thighs, which start shaking with effort to stay balanced.
The need for balance gives these workouts a mental benefit. A treadmill doesn’t always get my mind off duties and obligations. But if I start thinking about the office during a core-strengthening exercise, I’ll lose my balance and fall on the mat. “You have to be present in the moment to do these workouts,” says Mr. Verstegen. “You can’t be thinking about work.”
After three months of two core-training sessions a week, my body-fat percentage is down five points. My cruising speed on the treadmill has risen a full mile per hour, even though my weekly mileage plummeted to make time for the core exercises.
For the first time since the invention of the Internet, my shoulders are free of the knots that come from crouching at a keyboard, and my neck is free of stiffness. Whenever a mirror surprises me these days, what I notice about that dude in the glass is that he has decent posture.
Most surprising to me, my right foot is no longer splaying to the right, a bad habit that probably explains why I’ve had trouble with that leg, including knee surgery. Down the road, an inefficient gait could pose a risk for hip trouble, experts say.
All it took was about 24 sessions with Bridget, who continually kicked that foot straight.