If the answers are “yes,” then perhaps you need to get to the core of the situation—which, in fact, probably is your core. This has nothing to do with six-pack abs or a nicely rounded booty. The core is where most movements of your arms and legs originate. It’s the stabilizer for every functional movement, allowing you to resist the forces of moving around so you stay upright. Work your biceps all you wish, but if you want to throw a ball farther, work your obliques, instead.
To get away from the athletically meaningless cosmetics of looks and into the functional aspects of the core, you need to be familiar with its anatomy. The core is that part of the body below the shoulders and above the crotch—front, back and sides. It includes two kinds of abs: tranverse abs that sit deep in the body, and rectus abs, which lie on top of the transverse and create the ridges of a toned belly. The erector spinae, or spinal erectors, on each side of the spine, support the back. Under them, deep inside the back, lie the mostly ignored, but very important multifidus muscles, the “power” muscles that help stabilize the backbone, support the spinal discs and allow good posture. Strong multifidus muscles will help eliminate lower back pain and prevent back injury. Side support comes from the also-important obliques. Hip flexors, or the ilio-psoas, raise the legs but contract with long sitting; that shrinking is the cause of a lot of back pain. The three major glute muscles, maximus, minimus and medius, are not considered a major part of the core, but as the largest muscles in the body, they definitely need to be built up.
Examine an anatomy chart to locate all these muscles on your own body. When building a strong core, it helps to be able to feel the muscles as they are being worked.
It’s also extremely important to work all core muscles, because they must all work together in a balanced fashion. If, for example, you only do crunches, you may create overly strong abs, an out-of-balance situation that will definitely cause eventual injury to weaker core muscles (groin pull, anyone?).
Create your personal core workout according to your current fitness. Work on your weakest muscles with light weights, and build them slowly to prevent injury. Some good exercises include crunches, of course, but do additional sets where you turn your shoulders sideways to work the obliques. Also for obliques: Use gym rotary machines, or at home, hold dumbbells at chest level while turning from side to side.
The multifidus and spinal erectors can be strengthened with hyperextensions—bending the upper body down at the hips and raising it until your spine is straight. These can be done on a bench or ball, or, if you’re in good athletic shape, with a bar on your shoulders. To isolate and build the multifidus, lie on your side and contract your thigh so it feels like you’re pulling it back into your pelvis, without moving your thigh or hips. For hip flexors, lie on your back and lift your leg up, while keeping it straight. If these muscles are weak, start out by sitting in a chair, keep the spine straight, lift the thigh and hold it up for a count of 15 to 30. Hip flexors are the “kicking” muscles, so get a functional workout by kicking a ball around.
A core-specific workout is a way to make sure all those muscles are strong and balanced, but being active is also a good way to build your core. Whether biking, climbing, playing a sport, dancing or just moving around in everyday life, the solution to being a better athlete, pain-free and injury-free, is to build your core.