Marta Montenegro: The Real Meaning of Working the Core

From yogis, MMA aficionados, personal trainers to everyone in between, the phrase "working the core" has been so overused that people are having a hard time understanding what the core really is. Is it different from "working the abs?" What are the real fitness, sports and health benefits of strengthening the core? How can core work give me a better waist?

Scott Cole and Tom Seabourne, authors of the book Athletes Abs, write that "the core includes muscles that surround the stomach and lower back area. These are the pelvic floor muscles, the external obliques, the internal obliques, the rectus abdomins, the multifidus, the erector spinae and the transverses abdominis."

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As you can notice, "the core" implies way more than the abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques and transverses abdominis). The experts add that "strengthening the core, stabilizes the pelvis." The pelvis stabilizes the hip and the hip stabilizes the foot.

A strong core will act more to counterbalance all external forces, rather than to initiate a move. And, when the body is capable of managing all these forces that go towards it, the net force is zero, which means that the body is in equilibrium. This is what it makes the core so important if you want to perform better in sports, in the gym and in your daily lives activities.

Moving Beyond the Plank

After many years of overworking the abs through crunches, the fitness experts moved in unison to include exercises such as the planks and its variations to fully engage other muscles that had been overlooked. In addition to this, there has been a move toward incorporating more free weights/ athletic moves in the regular day-to-day gym workouts such as the deadlifts, push-presses and power snatches, which all heavily tax the core to brace the trunk and decelerate the move.

The Kettlebells Workout

For many people, the image that comes to their mind when advising to work the core is the plank or any other move that means to hold the contraction for a period of time without movement – isometric contractions. Flexion, extension and rotation of the trunks are sometimes not seen as a part of the plan when referring to the core.

Tom Holland, exercise physiologist and author of Beat the Gym  "believes that isometric core exercises do have value in an exercise program. Both modalities – isometric and isotonic contractions - are part of the progression process, allowing for the building of strength and neuromuscular connections at the beginning of a training program, and then moving to these more advanced multi-planar movements."

The plank will work a lot more than the six pack muscles, but crunches and other abdominal exercises have a place too, not just for fitness and sports sake, but for health. In the article "To Crunch or Not to Crunch," published by The Strength and Conditioning Journal (2011), the experts explain that the "spinal motion has been shown to facilitate nutrient delivery to the intervertebral discs. This has a particular significance for spinal tissue given that an age-related decrease in disc nutritional status is considered as a primary cause of disc degeneration."

When viewing common headlines like "working the core will make you run faster," take into consideration that you can’t just achieve these athletic goals by doing planks and side planks.  In the study by Barry University, Florida, the exercises that were used and improved performance in 5000 meter run were: back station on a stability ball, abdominal crunch on stability ball, supine opposite 1-arm/1-leg raise, hip raise on stability ball and Russian twist on stability ball. So, as you can notice working the core implied in this study flexion, rotation and extension of the trunk way beyond of sustaining a contraction for a given time.

Showing Off Your Abs

If you abandoned the healthy movement of the spine in favor of doing all types of planks, Frédéric Delavier in his book Core Training Anatomy says that "static work is not the best form of exercise to improve the appearance of your abdominal muscles. However, this strengthening exercise – plank- is perfect for athletes who want muscular stability."

Three Must-do Moves

So there we have it: The best way to get strength, muscle endurance and why not showing off a six pack will be by incorporating isometric (holding the contraction of the muscle) and isotonic contractions (shortening and lengthening the muscle) along with multi-planar moves.

Delavier suggests that when working the core this is what you should follow:

a)    Looking for strength: 12-15 reps

b)    Looking for muscle endurance and "loosing inches on the abs": 20- 50 reps

c)     In general, if you have one month of training do 6 to 7 sets in total when working these muscles while if you’re advanced, you can do up to 10 sets total.

d)    The speed of the move counts: If you are looking for strength, your goal should be 2 to 3 s to lift up, hold for 2 s and lower it at 2 s, while if endurance is the goal 1 s to lift, no hold and 1 s to come down.  When looking to lose inches, 2 s to lift the torso or legs, hold the position for 1 s and lower in 1 or 2 s.

Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website,, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.

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