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How popular media distorts the way people look at core exercise

Too often in American popular media, the primary focus of core exercise is placed on potential aesthetic benefits, such as “six-pack abs.” People should instead focus on the potential functional or sport performance benefits of core exercise. And in order for fitness professionals to prescribe exercises that address the core musculature, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research associate editor Jeffrey M. Willardson says it is necessary to properly define the anatomical core while recognizing the role of the core in creating efficient and powerful movement.


Willardson serves as editor of Developing the Core, written by experts with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. In the book, he defines the anatomical core as the trunk region—including parts of the skeleton like the rib cage, vertebral column, pelvic girdle, and shoulder girdle, along with associated passive tissues like cartilage and ligaments. The trunk also contains the active muscles that cause, control, or prevent motion in this region of the body. “The nervous system regulates the relative activation and relaxation of the core muscles,” Willardson explains. “Exercises should demand involvement of the core muscles in a way similar to the demands required during performance of sport skills.”


Willardson criticizes the way the popular media twists the term “core exercise” in marketing schemes to promote an exercise method or device that targets just the abdominal muscles. “There is a need to establish greater scientific objectivity in the methods used to train the core muscles,” he stresses. This includes less emphasis on exercises that focus on aesthetic benefits—such as machine-based abdominal crunches—and may have less transferability to dynamic sport performance. According to Willardson, the term “core” is often used by fitness professionals in conjunction with the term “functional,” which is used in reference to exercises considered more specific to performance of a task or that have greater application to performance of sport skills.


To facilitate transfer to sport performance, people should use total-body integrative exercises that involve the core muscles. These types of exercises require either dynamic actions (in which muscles shorten or lengthen to cause or control movement) or isometric actions (in which muscles are tensed but no movement occurs) from the core muscles in combination with dynamic or isometric actions of other muscles of the upper and lower extremities. Quite different from the machine-based forms of exercise often seen in the media, these types of exercises are usually performed in a standing or “playing” posture and have similar kinematic (such as range, timing, and type of joint movement) and kinetic (such as the amount of force produced) characteristics to sport skills.


“Total-body integrative exercises that train the core muscles are only one component of strength and conditioning programs,” stresses Willardson. “The prescription of such exercises should be based on individual needs.”


Featuring contributions from 17 of the NSCA's top hand-picked experts, Developing the Core contains over 50 of the most effective core development exercises along with scientific-based assessments to help athletes understand individual needs and build personalized core programs. In addition, this latest entry in the NSCA's Sport Performance Series offers 11 sport-specific programs for some of the most popular individual and team sports.

Read more from Developing the Core by NSCA (National Strength & Conditioning Association) and Jeffrey Willardson.