The Core or Don’t Pull Yourself Out Of Shape!

 The Core as Concept

Everyone who has ever been in an exercise class or watched a program on back pain or read an article on back injury has come across references to “the core” and heard expressions like “pull your core in” or “engage your core muscles.”

What do youthink when ‘the core’ is mentioned, what is your association? My experience is that most people think it has to do with their abdominal muscles. We probably do all something different, when we ‘engage with our core’, because neither the anatomy of the area nor the degree of engagement are explained to us while we work out on a machine or sweat on a mat. Also, the brain just likes to interpret and create meaning in order to make sense of words, sensations or concepts. This means we will arrive at our individual understanding of ‘core’, and this understanding will also be linked to our personal way of doing things, our habit. 

I wonder when this usage of the word as a phys. ed. concept originated. Did your parents or grandparents use it? When I came to this country in the early 90s, the term was fully established. In Germany, we speak of belly and trunk musculature — trunk musculature, that’s the right direction.

So, how come we use belly muscles when our back is weak?

Frank Netter, MD; Atlas of Human Anatomy

Some Core Anatomy

“In anatomy, the core refers, in its most general of definitions, to the body minus the legs and arms … The major muscles of the core reside in the area of the belly and mid and lower back …” (wikipedia)

“The muscles of the torso, which provide support for the spine and pelvis” (, definition # 15.)

We can find many similar definitions of core that all refer to a system of muscles rather than focusing on the abdominals: “The muscles of posture are situated mainly on the anterior and posterior aspects of the body” (Royal Air Force, Principles of Anatomy and Physiology for PT Instructors) 

“To really include all of the elements that move and stabilize the spine, you have to go from your knees to your nipples. That’s the core” (NY Times Phys. Ed. columnist Gretchen Reynolds quoting Dr. Vijad Vad, MD) “The muscles, ligaments and tendons that make up the elaborate core muscle system provide rigging for the spine. … the big muscles at the front and sides of the spine are particularly important in stabilizing the back. So are the less familiar intertransversi, interspinalis and multifidus muscles ….”

Again, why do we focus on the abdominals when the back is weak or achy? One of the reasons might be that the system of deep postural muscles that link vertebrae together eludes our sensory awareness – we cannot feel the deepest layers of back muscles, which have a different physiology and staying power than the more peripheral movement muscles that we can voluntarily contract (control, engage, pull in, exercise) and feel. Frankly, I think the intelligent use of the true core, the postural back muscles, is being sacrificed to the readily contractible and easily felt abdominal muscles. It is as if the consumer of physical health practices cannot be trusted with a deeper and meaningful understanding of his/ her physiology.

Alternative Concepts 

You can think 

  • About your core as a system of interlaced spiraling muscles around your torso from the pubic bone to the back of your neck or from the pelvis rim to the front of your neck
  • That engaging your abdominal muscles at 10 % of their potential strength might be adequate to keep your spine stable
  • About the concept of muscle tone; toned muscles being the difference between flaccid, lax, lazy muscles and tense overworking muscles
  • About giving your spine the job of keeping you up while you are sitting and standing; this might be the best exercise for your core (the secret is, that you can do it almost everywhere and almost all the time)
  • That the pelvic floor musculature is part of your core, not as in Kegel exercises but as part of your upwards spiraling muscle container
  • That your breathing thorax and your digestive system need to be free and in motion for your overall health 
  • That the functioning of your core is based upon the functioning of your whole body in any activity with adequate muscle use
  • Up along the spine and out through the crown of your head when you exercise

And to be blunt

  • Don’t’ do crunches or sit-ups 
  • Don’t exercise your long vertical abdominal muscle, the rectus abdominis
  • Don’t aim for six-packs
  • Don’t bring your neck towards your pubis
  • Don’t strengthen your flexor system in the front instead of your extensor system in your back


The Core or Don’t Pull Yourself Out Of Shape! — 2 Comments

  1. Hi Michaela

    Good article and what most people don’t realize is that our ‘core’ muscles are at the very center of our being and therefore they are primarily posture muscles and there fore are activated by the postural reflexes and therefore we cannot pull them even if it was a good idea which I agree with you it is not.

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