Well Being: Work that core, the body's power train

A strong and supple midsection, between chest and hips, can head off a variety of ailments.

Posted: April 11, 2011

A week ago, orthopedic surgeon Nick DiNubile answered questions in the first section of this newspaper about ways to achieve fitness without damaging your body, especially as we age (visit www.philly.com/agingbodies for the story and www.philly.com/stretchvideo to see a related video). He spoke about the four pillars: cardiovascular exercise, strength training, stretching, and core work.

Several readers called or wrote to say they were flummoxed by the term "core." What is it? Where is it? And how do you work it?

Today, again with the expert assistance of DiNubile (also known as Dr. Nick), the author of FrameWork, a guide to the care and maintenance of the musculoskeletal system, the mystery and majesty of the core will be revealed.

The core is your midsection, the area between your chest and hips. It encompasses your abdominal region as well as your lower back and pelvic and gluteal area (buttocks). It involves not only the abs but also such rotational muscles as the obliques (on the side of your waist, usually buried beneath love handles) and the spine-fortifying lumbar extensors in the lower back.

"The core is important in keeping your frame healthy and preventing a variety of orthopedic ailments, from low-back pain to knee injuries, including ACL tears, patellar pain, and even shoulder troubles," says DiNubile, 58, who is chief of orthopedics at Delaware County Memorial Hospital and a consultant to the Pennsylvania Ballet.

In yoga and other Eastern practices, the pelvic triangle is considered the locus of qi or chi, the source of the body's vitality. Likewise, the core is often referred to as the body's "powerhouse."

"It's the foundation of power for sports and performance," DiNubile says. "When you see a fighter throw a punch, it starts at the floor and goes through the core. The same with a pitcher throwing a ball, or a tennis player serving."

One reason professional and Olympic athletes are faster and stronger these days is that so many are maximizing their abilities by conditioning and strengthening their cores.

For the average person, a strong and supple core improves posture, balance, stability, and overall function. It also reduces the likelihood of back pain, DiNubile says, a problem that affects four out of five people at one time or another.

I can attest. My adolescent campaign to develop washboard abs, which I've maintained through slantboard sit-ups, has paid off in late middle age. Despite decades of pounding on pavement as a long-distance runner and trying to lift engine blocks and jeep plows single-handedly, I've never had a sore back.

How do you develop your core?

Such gym staples as trotting on a treadmill and bench-pressing a barbell, alas, won't do much.

"So much of fitness is one- or two-dimensional," DiNubile laments. "With core work, you're trying to recruit muscles in a 3-D kind of way."

Yoga and Pilates are dandy for the core, and especially effective are ballet and martial arts, DiNubile says, but you can reform your core at home with simple exercises that require little equipment - a mat and a stability ball.

Here are DiNubile's top five core exercises. I won't try to describe the how-to here. Instead, you can see them illustrated and explained in detail by visiting www.philly.com/core and viewing excerpts from DiNubile's book.

The crunch. The traditional straight-up crunch works only "the front door." In other words, it's fine for the marquee muscles, the abs, but doesn't do much for the rest of the kinetic chain and biomechanical links that make up the core. DiNubile recommends the crunch with a twist, literally (aim elbow toward opposite knee). Better yet, a crunch with a twist on the stability ball.

The plank. DiNubile's suggestion: Start on your knees, progress to your feet, then to lifting an arm or leg, then to the endurance-building quadruped. Next, try the side plank, then a plank or side plank on a ball.

The bird dog. A yoga staple, and inspired by a pointer in full flush mode.

The glute bridge. A wonderful chance to practice mindfulness. DiNubile's pal Arnold Schwarzenegger used to visualize blood flowing into his muscles while pumping iron. It was no fantasy, as the science of biofeedback shows. Squeeze your buns, feel the delicious tension in your hamstrings.

The Superman. Lying face down on the floor, imagine flying like Superman, with your arms and legs lifted. A terrific exercise for the lumbar extensor muscles of the lower back and the glutes and upper hamstrings. Raves DiNubile: "I love Superman on the ball."

You can do core work every day, but two to three times a week should be sufficient for most folks. When performing these exercises, "be mindful of the muscles you're using," DiNubile advises, "and make sure you're not just going through the motions. Breathe deeply and comfortably throughout because it's meant to be relaxing as well."


Contact columnist Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or acarey@phillynews.com.

 

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