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Beyond Sit-Ups: Working Your Core

There's more than one way to sculpt those all-important midsection muscles

spinner image Kathy Smith on exercise mat

When most people think of core strength, they think of the abdominals — but these "six-pack" muscles are only one part of the equation. The core also encompasses the obliques (which help you rotate side to side), the transverse abdominis (the ones you use when you cough or pull your belly in) and the lower back and glute or butt muscles (critical for good posture). “The core extends like a girdle around your entire midsection,” explains fitness expert and New York Times bestselling author Kathy Smith.

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Your core stabilizes the body when you move so you can do everyday activities like carrying groceries, walking up and down stairs, and/or gardening without pain and injury. A strong core can also improve every fitness activity you do, be it walking or running, golf, tennis, swimming and more.

“The core helps to support you for stability and balance,” explains Smith. “It’s your center of gravity. When it’s strong, you’re able to perform any activity with much more confidence.”

Core exercises, such as abdominal crunches, planks and the bridge pose, are typically done on a mat or carpeted floor with a goal of five to 15 reps. Stability balls and the BOSU balance trainer (a large semispherical rubber ball on a flat bottom) can be used with core exercises to enhance the effects; these create an unstable surface that forces the core muscles to work harder or more efficiently

“What’s so important with core exercises, as with any exercises, is to control your movements,” explains Smith. “You don’t want to move too quickly or abruptly. It’s not the number of reps that’s important, it’s the form. It’s better to do three right — slowly and mindfully — than 15 wrong.”

Research shows that by working the core muscles, you lower your risk of backache and injuries, improve your posture (which reduces your risk of a herniated disc and degeneration of the vertebrae), and boost your balance (which reduces your risk of falls). In essence, a stronger core will give you mobility and independence for many years.

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