Take a look at any fitness magazine or peek at any celebrity's "how I whipped my body into shape" secrets and you will probably find information about why it's time to add core strength training to your workout. Before you hit the mat for a few grueling sets of planks, bridges, and maybe even crunches, you may want to consider new research that questions whether the time, energy, and effort put into building your core is really worth it.
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Core strength programs target the muscles in the torso, among them major muscles most of us simply refer to as the abs and obliques, and minor muscles such as glutes, traps and lats. Strong core muscles provide stability from the neck down through the hips. The muscles in the lower back, abdomen, pelvis, and hips work in sync and give support to the spine. If the core muscles are weak, there is an increased possibility of poor posture, injury, and back pain. Some people might hammer out exercises specifically to target core muscles, and others might reap the benefits by participating in core-centered disciplines like yoga, dance, and Pilates.
While some experts argue that core strength exercises should be added to cardiovascular and resistance training programs, new studies are showing mixed results in how that impacts athletic performance.
One study out of Indiana State University put young adults in good health through a series of physical performance tests. What they found was that those participants measured to have strong core muscles did not necessarily perform better than those who didn't.
However, two other studies cited by the New York Times offer conflicting findings on core exercises and core strength. The first tracked college-level rowers through an eight-week extensive core-strength course, and found that their times and performance did not improve after this was added to their regular workout routine. But a second study found the opposite to be true: this piece of research introduced a six-week core-building program to adults new to running who were also judged as having weak core strength. Compared to a control group who did not receive the additional training, participants who performed core exercises shaved more time off of their 5K runs. Core exercises in this case, helped.
What does all this science say to the average exerciser?
"A lot of studies aren't going to give the answer we're looking for," says Dr. Scott Fonda, a rehabilitative chiropractic sports doctor who teaches internationally on core strength issues and serves on the sports medical team of the PGA Tour. "Core strength has a role in fitness and probably has a role in athletic performance. It benefits the average person but it's important we don't overemphasize it. Fitness is not all about strength. Strength is only one component."
Dr. Fonda says the recipe for fitness does include strength but also relies upon endurance, flexibility, and motor control -- how a person utilizes the strength they have in the best way possible, whether that is in lifting weights or lifting children.
"If the average mom is chasing toddlers and lifting them all day, that's athleticism for that population," which he says helps guide what she needs bodily to help her perform at her best.
Athletes may benefit from core-strength programs, he says, but only if they are also engaging in sports-specific training as well. A golfer, for example, isn't going to hit better simply because she's built up his core muscles. She will also need to develop other aspects of her fitness.
Will core exercises give you that "6-pack" look you want?
Not so much, according to Dr. Fonda.
"[Core exercises] are all about aesthetics for many people-the ripped abs," he says. "But there is nothing to suggest that comes from core exercises. In fact, it is more a product of lean body mass rather than core strength."
The best example of this is an Olympic power lifter, who Fonda says often have big midsections.
"Have you ever seen one that looks like a body builder or like Schwarzenegger in his prime? It's not how the abs look on the outside [that indicates core strength] but how it is underneath."
So is it worth investing precious gym time in crunches?
"Crunches are not really biomechanically a healthy exercise for the back," Dr. Fonda asserts.
Instead, he advises patients to tailor their core training to suit their individual needs, goals, conditions and injuries. For those who get the green light, he suggests starting out with planks, basic bridges, side bridges (also referred to as "side planks"), and hands-and-knees exercises with arm and leg reaches.
Solid core programs should also focus on the obliques, glutes, hips, and back. Fonda also stresses the importance of learning how to brace and tighten the abs -- and not just the front abdominals. Most people have to be taught how to "turn on" those muscles and utilize them properly, he says.
Dr. Fonda notes there are lots of opinions about whether core strength training is a worthwhile workout because research has not yet told us "the whole story" of its long-term impact for different people. However, he maintains that even conflicting research findings are important for the general public to hear simply because they raise awareness about exercise. And any report might inspire a new exerciser.
"If someone who is sedentary and inactive [reads a study on the controversy over core strength] and it gets them doing something, then that makes putting the information out there essential, really," Fonda said.
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