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By Brian A. Bast, D.O.

Maintaining core-strength has been a huge focus in the sports and fitness world for the last decade. As the term “core” implies, this part of our bodies is central to most activities we perform, particularly any sports activity. Keeping the muscles at our core strong is important for achieving peak performance as well as avoiding injury. In this article, I will review what core exercises are and why they are important.

Core-strength refers to the spine and the major muscle groups neighboring the spine. These muscle groups include the front thighs, the buttocks, the abdominals, and the layers of muscles surrounding the spine. The interplay among these central muscles groups is essential for any physical activity. For example, think about the various body parts a baseball pitcher engages to throw a ball 100 m.p.h. Central to his pitching ability is the strength and flexibility of the musculature in his lower back and upper thighs, transmitting his leg power up the spine to the shoulders, and ultimately to the hand where the ball is released at blazing speed. Without the core musculature, our limbs are separate objects, unable to work in a coordinated fashion with the rest of our body.

Core exercise has changed over time with a growing awareness to a few key principles. In the past, core strengthening generally meant sit-ups, and a multitude of them. Other exercises like push-ups, pull-ups and jumping jacks also represented core work, but sit-ups and abdominal exercises were often what people spent the majority of their time doing. Today, maintaining core strength is a more dynamic process involving exercises that develop balance, flexibility and strength as well as paying particular attention to injury prevention. Yoga and martial arts, like Tai Chi, are often incorporated into core strengthening programs to enhance flexibility and balance.

Injury prevention is paramount in core strength development. Bad or incorrect form can lead to back injuries, one of the most common reasons people seek medical care. Developing core strength may be the goal of many exercises, but without proper form, back and neck injuries may result. Recently there has been a trend away from sit-ups, given the extra strain on the low back that occurs with the repetitive rocking motion on the lower segments of the spine. In an effort to limit this repetitive stress, neutral spine exercises are favored. These exercises engage the core musculature against gravity in which the spine is held relatively straight or neutral, unlike the repetitive motion common with sit-ups. Examples of some excellent core exercises can be found at:

Developing a core strength program, either through your gym, yoga class or with a health care provider, can help prevent injury while enhancing your athletic performance. Try and refine your program to fit your schedule and borrow from other disciplines to keep it interesting.