Hard-core workout

May 31, 2004|By KATE COLEMAN

Everything old is new again.

That expression could be applied to the recent attention being paid to something called "core strength."

"The principle is ancient," said Revonda Montoya, a personal trainer.

Yoga practitioners have been aware of the concept for centuries. Pilates, a current trend in fitness that builds core strength, was developed during World War I.

Core strength is not about having an enviable "six-pack" or tight tummy. It's not about flexing and flashing your biceps or triceps.

Core strength refers to the core muscles of your body - some of which you can't even see because they're under other muscles. They include back and abdominal muscles and muscles in the pelvic floor and hips, according to information from All Spirit Fitness, online at


Core muscles are stabilizers. They're necessary for proper posture, they improve balance and have an effect on how other parts of your body behave.

Strength begins in the abdominal cavity and lower back, said Mathew McIntosh, chairman of Shepherd University's Exercise Science Department.

There are ways to build that strength.

Pilates is among the classes Montoya teaches at the Hagerstown YMCA. In that program, Montoya spends the first five minutes talking about posture, explaining its importance to developing the core.

In her fitness programs, Montoya uses an array of equipment - not high-tech exercise machines - but simple devices that help build core strength. The stability ball - large and inflatable - looks like something that would be more at home on a playground than in a gym. Just sitting on it is a workout. Because the ball is not firmly ground, several different muscles, including the core muscles of the abdomen and back, must be used to maintain stability. Abdominal crunches on the ball, with feet on the floor, hands behind head and leaning back only 30 degrees, are more effective at building core strength than old-fashioned sit-ups.

A smaller inflatable ball placed between a wall and your back is good for squats, something McIntosh said should be a part of every exercise program. Squatting works to strengthen core muscles.

Montoya also uses a bosu ball - flat on one side, round on the other - and a smaller disc, both balance trainers. The equipment can be used for a variety of exercises - abdominal crunches, push-ups, step aerobics. Benefits are increased because more muscles, core muscles, need to be used to maintain balance.

"Muscles that are normally asleep are awake and alive," Montoya said.

Position and posture are important. You will look taller and thinner if you sit and stand properly with good posture and an aligned body, Montoya said.

And you can stand properly more easily if you are stronger at your core. Think about position. Shift hips back, have a natural curve - not exaggerated arch - in your lower back, pull shoulders away from your ears, and draw your navel deep to spine, Montoya said. Visualizing a string wrapped around your belly button and being pulled from behind can help to achieve that, she added.

Working on building core strength in a gym is good, but it goes beyond the fitness center.

"We can exercise all we want," McIntosh said. It's application in your lifestyle that's important. "The greatest gains occur when you're recovering - not exercising," McIntosh said. He mentioned blood supply, nerve supply, elimination of wastes from muscle.

McIntosh includes proper lifting and carrying, sitting and standing among the functions of everyday living. It's how you sit at your desk or in the driver's seat of your car. It's turning your body, not twisting it. It's sleeping with your body aligned as it should be, from the head through the neck, shoulders, hips and legs and down to the feet.

Good posture and position are second nature to Montoya so she doesn't have to think much about it. But when she does, she's aware - even when doing dishes or reaching for the telephone - of how she's moving.

"Awareness is everything," Montoya said.

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