Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Fitness Buzzword I’m Sick Of

What the heck is a “core”?

Well, I know it’s the part of an apple you eat around and toss. It’s also the part of the tomato you cut out. It’s the ball we believe is at the center of the earth and it’s made of iron and nickel.

Do we have a body part called a core? If so, what is it?

According to my Core Rhythms DVDs, the core is the band of muscles above the hips, front and back: Rectus abdominus, obliques, and the erector spinae muscles.

Kevin’s P90X DVDs has a core workout that seems to involve the entire torso as it contains exercises like pushups, which also engage pectorals, biceps, and triceps.

Certain faddish exercise classes I have taken (whose name I will not mention for fear of offending its devotees) are obsessed with the word “core” and seem to focus mostly on the front of the body: rectus abdominus, obliques, hip flexors, and some hip adductor and abductor. The back muscles are hardly engaged at all as much of the work is done lying on the floor.

The idea that one must engage the abdominal muscles in order to stabilize the trunk is hardly a new concept. Everyone from powerlifters to ballet dancers have known this for centuries. My ballet teacher in college used to call the belly the “power button” while exercise instructors have always started classes with the command, “Abs are tight.” In order to hold your spine straight and tall through an exercise, we must engage several muscles. Although it can be helpful to strengthen individual body parts, we have to remember that real life movement integrates all body parts as a whole. To remember to engage one’s abs is one way to insure optimal integration.

I suppose that’s why these “core” statements drive me crazy. It’s very easy for an instructor to say, “I will make your core stronger,” because there is no one set definition of a core.  Your core is stronger? How? Which muscles are you referring to? In what measureable ways are they stronger? Is there any scientific evidence that one method of working these muscles works better than any other? Are you strengthening your core at the expense of other muscles? For example, if you are working mostly lying on your back, how do you address the imbalances in your body as you address your anterior muscles while resting the posterior muscles?

Core has become a marketing tool, a gimmick. It’s one I find almost insulting. Rather than talk about muscles and the ways they can be strengthened, we talk about “core” which sounds sort of new-agey and unthreatening and unscientific. That seems to make the term less intimidating for the supposedly uneducated masses (especially women who are supposed to be threatened by muscle talk). It also takes away a certain responsibility from those selling core workouts. If there is no universal definition of core, no measurable way to gage core strength, then whoever is selling you exercises doesn’t have to deliver much.No one has to back up any claims of improving core strength when core is so esoteric and undefined.

Does a specified core workout work your trunk stabilizers better than any other workout? The truth about muscles is that they all function the same. If you work a muscle to fatigue, eventually it will grow stronger as long as you fatigue it consistently. Your muscles don’t know if you are using a dumbbell, a kettlebell, a band, a weight stack, or some spring-loaded contraption. It just knows it is being worked. Some exercises will work it harder than others. Everything about your muscles – the size, the shape, the length, the flexibility – are all mostly determined by genetics. No amount of core instruction will turn an endomorph into an ectomorph. You won't get six-pack abs if you don't do some serious adjustment to your diet. 

Rather than worry about your core, worry about making sure your workouts are balanced (don’t sacrifice your very important back muscles because you feel your abdominals are the be-all and end-all of your workouts). Consider the functionality of the moves you do. How much of your entire body are you using?

Are you unsure about how integrative your workout is? I have one piece of advice: stand up! Isolating muscles while lying on the floor or sitting on a weight machine is not going to incorporate your whole body. If you are standing up, all of your muscles are working to keep your body erect, plus you are working against gravity.

Now if I could only eliminate the word “toning.”

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