Updated: Aug 21, 2021
Grab your anatomy book and look up the word “core”. You won’t find it. That’s because the entire concept of Core Exercises is a made up marketing term. Your “core”, as the term is commonly used, can refer to anything in your mid-torso. This includes muscles such as your rectus abdominis, your lower back, and the internal and external obliques. The truth is, there is nothing special about working these muscles that make them any more important than the muscles in your limbs, upper torso, or any other part of your body.
Working your ‘core’ is supposed to bring about a whole lot of health benefits. A simple Google search of “benefits of a strong core” brings up these results:
“Core exercises improve your balance and stability.”
“Core exercises train the muscles in your pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen to work in harmony. This leads to better balance and stability, whether on the playing field or in daily activities.”
“Core strength is the ability to support your spine and keep your body stable and balanced.”
“Core strength allows you to perform manual tasks safely and effectively in everyday life.”
Those seem like relatively innocent claims at first blush, but think about it for a minute. Consider the claim that “Core exercises train your muscles to work in harmony.” What on earth is it supposed to mean for your muscles to “work in harmony”? Have you ever experienced attempting to do a task and finding that one of your muscles simply fails to cooperate? If you experience that level of loss of executive function, you need a neurologist, not a yoga mat. What they are most likely trying to refer to here is your brain’s ability to learn skill patterns, and direct your muscles more efficiently. This is something that your brain learns to do through repeated action, not something that you can ‘train’ your muscles themselves to do, and not something that will come about due to a stronger torso.
Core strength is also often cited as being responsible for improving balance and coordination. An article by Reader’s Digest Best Health claims that “when you’ve got a strong core, ‘everything else will fit into place on top of it,’ meaning your overall fitness will improve, making you less prone to injury down the road.” This simply doesn’t make sense. Nothing in your body is going to “fit into place” and become stronger on its own without taking direct action to make it stronger. To strengthen your entire body and improve your overall fitness, you need to do a training regimen that targets your entire body.
The big idea behind strengthening your core to improve balance is that you can “stabilize” your spine by working the muscles there. However, balance is a skill. It has more to do with your brain than your muscles, because your muscles don’t make decisions. You don’t learn to balance while riding a bike by doing lots of squats and crunches, you learn to balance while riding a bike by riding a bike. Your brain learns which muscles to engage to keep you balanced. While there is some correlation between your ability to balance and function and the condition of your muscles, it is not more important to work your abdominal muscles in this regard. It is just as important to strengthen and tone your hips, shoulders, and legs.
This same flaw in logic is what brought us the idea of “spot reduction”. You don’t improve balance by targeting only one muscle, and you don’t get rid of fat by targeting only one area. Spot reduction is the idea that you can get rid of fat in a particular area of your body by concentrating your exercise in that area. But your body just doesn’t store and use energy that way. When your muscles need energy to work, they don’t just grab it from the nearest pile of fat. Fat is burned when the calories that you are using are outpaced by the calories you are taking in.
According to Matt Brzycki in A Practical Approach to Strength Training, “Managing your weight boils down to the mathematical interplay of two variables: caloric consumption and caloric expenditure. If you consume (eat) more calories than you expend (use), you’ll gain weight. If you expend (use) more calories than you consume (eat), you’ll lose weight.” What this means is that you are not going to get rid of your gut by exclusively doing crunches.
While it is certainly important to strengthen and improve your abdominal and lower back muscles, it is not more important than training any of your other muscles. In order to improve coordination, balance, performance, and health, you will see more results by strengthening your body in a balanced way with a strength training program that targets all of the major muscle groups by doing a comprehensive total body workout and not just Core Exercises.