Abs at the core of fitness

TRIM AND TONED: Strong stomach muscles are essential for general good fitness.
TRIM AND TONED: Strong stomach muscles are essential for general good fitness.

If you have a six-pack, you have a strong core, right?

Not necessarily. A strong core - made up of the inner and outer back and abdominal muscles that surround and support the torso - is about much more than a good-looking stomach.

And it's not something only active people need to think about.

''Core strength really does affect everything,'' says Dr Simon Floreani, chiropractor and national spokesperson for the Chiropractors' Association of Australia.

Back pain, neck pain and headaches can all be traced back to a weak core. And that's just for starters.

Strengthening the muscles that make up your core will not only improve posture, body confidence and, for sportspeople, performance, but also reduce the likelihood of injury and pain, says fitness expert, personal trainer and Manly Rugby Union strength and conditioning coach Paul Collins, aka the Body Coach.

''Everyone should be doing core strengthening,'' says Collins, who has written four books on the subject. ''Core strength is the ability to hold your body in the correct position.''


Uterine cramping, stomach aches, bloating, anxiety-like symptoms, infertility, osteoarthritis and hip wear and tear can stem from many reasons but one of the lesser-known causes is inadequate core strength.

''If food ferments in the gut and does not drain away due to a slack and weak core, it can cause bloating and stomach aches,'' Floreani says.

The uterus, held up inside the gut by ligaments, is also influenced by the state of a woman's core muscles.

''If those ligaments are weak or twisted, the uterus can fall forwards or downwards and cramp and pull on the back and create back pain. Also, if your uterus is constantly cramped and folded, it might affect fertility, because the old blood is meant to drain away properly.''


Breathing can also be influenced by the core muscles.

''When you have a lower back arch, the upper thoracic region and the head come forward,'' Collins says.

Floreani says this can lead to compromised breathing. ''A good core holds your abdomen in and enables you to hold your chest up. If not, you end up resting the weight of your upper back on your core and lower back.

''Anxiety-like symptoms such as shortness of breath or restricted breathing can be linked to this because you can't breathe deeply enough when your chest is resting, rounded and forward.''

A strong, well-aligned spine - the result of a strong core - can also prevent osteoarthritis, Floreani says.

''A core in the wrong alignment will progressively just wear and the vertebrae can start rubbing against each other,'' he says.

''Hips can be affected, too, with a weak core leading to incorrect bending of the back, causing wear on the hips and other spinal joints.''


Most people will suffer back pain at some time or another, Floreani says, but if people improve their core, enabling them to hold their spines in the correct alignment, a lot of pain can be prevented.

Collins says that as soon as core strength goes, pelvic position changes, the lower back arches and strain is transferred to other areas of the body - most commonly the lower back.

''The core is like a corset but a weak core leads to back pain, poor performance, strain and injury,'' he says.


Many of us go through life with a weak core but, because of the resilience and speedy recovery times of our youth, don't realise it's a problem until we get older, Collins says.

''It's like a crack in a brick wall. You can patch it up but you can't repair it.''

For this reason, Collins says it's important to focus on building core strength in children.

''This will provide them with a foundation for strength in future,'' he says.

''Core strength is the first phase in introducing body awareness. Even if you are doing a squat, you focus on your core because as soon as you lose it, your back arches and you change the dynamics of the movement.''

- Sydney Morning Herald