April 29, 2010 at 10:31 am EDT | by Kevin M. Norris
Taking care of your core

Core conditioning and functional training have become synonymous with an effective well-rounded exercise program. Although the concept may still be new to some, a program that omits these areas is severely lacking and risks postural imbalances, injuries and pain.

The core is the foundation and the center of support for the entire body. Most people historically thought the core was only comprised of the abdominals. But the core encompasses the entire abdominal wall, the obliques — or sides of your abs — the lower back, hip flexors and pelvic region.

Think of the core as the “girdle” of your body. The core includes the center of your body and provides stability, balance and agility. A strong core allows the body to move as a fluid functional unit and leads to greater strength throughout the body including the extremities. A strong core maintains appropriate posture and reduces strain on the lower back and joints.

By contrast, a weak core is much like a three-legged table: It will ultimately fall over. Without the solid foundation of a sturdy core, imbalances, mechanical idiosyncrasies and distortions throughout the entire body will occur. A weak core can wreak havoc on the body, leading to problems from poor posture to lower back and hip issues to a distorted gait. Moreover, the entire spine can be affected because several muscles that support the spine are compromised. Those muscles have become too weak and de-conditioned to sustain holding up and stabilizing the body.

Core Conditioning (CC) dictates performing a series of exercises that engage, stimulate and strengthen the core. CC exercises are multi-muscular and involve multiple plains of motion. They are more elaborate and encompassing than isolated movements and should be performed after a thorough warm-up. Keep in mind CC should integrate all the major core muscles.

Functional Training (FT) involves performing exercises and movements that are most conducive to everyday movement patterns. Functional training refers to useable strength — strength used to function every day and perform what is referred to as ADL or Activities of Daily Living. FT, like CC involves multiple muscles and muscle groups, often times integrating many muscle groups into one exercise or compound exercises at a time.

Functional training cannot be incorporated into an exercise program without first establishing a strong core through core conditioning. They go hand-in-hand and without core strength and stability, the rest of the body will crumble and any form of functional training will not be possible.

It is important to acknowledge also that without a strong core, you cannot begin to do isolated movements. If your goal is to develop bigger, more defined individual muscles, then you cannot achieve this without first building a strong foundation that will stabilize your body when performing isolated movements.

You need the strength of your abs, lower back, hip flexors and pelvis to sling and propel heavy weights around.

Where to begin? First and foremost CC and FT should be performed after a full body warm-up, never a cold body. Generally speaking, the warm-up should be a much less strenuous mirror image of the actual workout. You should perform full body movements that focus on all your major muscle groups without weights and certainly not on the limited movement of a machine or isolated muscular movements.

Start your routine with a light cardiovascular warm-up of 5-10 minutes to bring up the body’s core temperature. Follow this up with 5-10 minutes of light calisthenics and multi-muscular movements.

Light calisthenics could be jumping jacks, jumping rope, side shuffles, running backwards, knee smashes, running in place, butt kicks, kick-boxing or boxing simulations to name a few. Here is where you can be creative and think outside the box. When functionally training, think in terms of moving as many muscles as possible at once or in progression.

CC and FT have been around for longer than you think. Yoga and Pilates are classic core exercise modalities. Also, functional training equipment such as balance boards and stability balls have become the norm and are available in most up-to-date fitness centers.

I have survived and prevailed over two back surgeries and now am healthy with a relatively strong core. I believe a significant contribution to my back issues came from weaknesses in my core and in muscular imbalances. And while I thought I had a strong core, there was room for improvement, as there always is. To date, whenever I wake up with a sore back or suffer from skeletal and muscular aches and pains, I know it’s attributable to imbalances in the strength of my core and supporting muscles.

Add core conditioning and functional training to your exercise repertoire and you will be on your way to a solid body, greater overall fitness and a reduced risk of injury. With solid core and functional strength you will be stronger, faster, better balanced and far more stable.

Kevin M. Norris is a health and fitness columnist for the Washington Blade and owner of Mind Your Own Body, LLC. Reach him at kevinmnorris@aol.com.

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