Core Exercises and Core Muscles- When Did the Obsession Begin?

May 2, 2008

I remember working out before “working the core” was a massive focal point. I think many trainers have gone mad. They are almost obsessed about core exercises. I’m here to tell you, that a lot of the stuff you do works your core anyway, so no need to do a lot of the strange “swiss ball” and “balance board” exercises that you see people doing. Your time is limited in the gym, so let’s make the most of it.
female six pack abs
[A seriously nice set of amazing female abs...Yes please!]

Why I’m Going on a “Core Exercise” Rant!

I workout in a gym and see the weirdest stuff! About 4 times a week I jump on a treadmill that overlooks the entire gym. Almost every day, I see 2-3 of the trainers have clients stand on a balancing board and throw exercise balls at them. The client catches the ball and throws it back to the trainer. The trainer then throws the ball back to the client at different spots. The idea is that the “core muscles” get stronger because they have to balance the body!

Another Strange Core Exercise Phenomenon

The exercise listed above is a waste of time for the most part, but at least it is directly targeting the core. Even worse is when trainers have people do lifts targeting a different muscle group, while working the core simultaneously. Seriously…doing shoulder presses with dumbbells on a Swiss Ball to work the core? Call me crazy, but I thought shoulder presses were suppose to work the shoulders! The big problem here is that you have to use much less weight and probably won’t approach the resistance necessary to get a good shoulder workout.

Your Core Muscles Naturally Get a Good Workout Anyway

If you do a workout that involves free weights, you do body weight exercises, and you do cardio…you are hitting your core muscles. Your core muscles stabilize your body and keep it stiff like a board while doing push ups. When doing standing barbell curls or standing military presses, your core gets worked. When running on a treadmill your core transfers the force from the legs to the upper body.

The Only Direct Core Exercise I Recommend Are “Planks”

Like I mentioned before, your core gets a solid workout naturally so you don’t need to obsess over working it. I do planks as my main ab exercise and this works the core hard. Really…it is a great exercise to get an amazing six pack and works the core at the same time. Try doing a set or two for two minutes and you will know just how time efficient this exercise is.

Here are Two Posts I wrote about Planks:

Great Six Pack Ab Video Shows How Get Extremely Toned Abs
7 Minute Abs? 8 Minute Abs? What About 6 Minute Abs?

Note: I’m not slamming the use of balancing boards, bosu trainers, swiss balls, etc…I just think that it is important to get the “basics” down first. There are certainly advanced uses for these exercises in regards to athletic performance and balance. If you are limited on time and want to lose body fat as quickly as possible, I would recommend avoiding this type of stuff for a while. Your time would be better spent on cardio and strength training.

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Rusty Moore

----> (New) Facebook Comments..."Cause all the cool kids are doin' it!"

{ 63 comments… read them below or add one }

admin May 5, 2008 at 10:53 pm

Jay,

Eat nothing but soup made of chicken breasts, chicken broth, cilantro, cabbage, onions, hot peppers, etc. You can also eat salad made with chicken breasts and use a vinegar-based dressing. Think lean meat and green veggies. It is a brutal 21 day diet that will allow you to drop 10-20 pounds in three weeks. This is a really simplified version of Lyle Mcdonald’s book, The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook.

Ron,

Peaches is hilarious! My girlfriend recently saw her in concert and said it was insane. I’ll check out whitey. You are asking the wrong person about sleep. I work 55+ hour weeks at my job, workout 4-5 times per week, and work on this blog 2-3 hours per day.

theyo,

I encourage people to get outside and exercise. Who wants to spend all of their time trapped in a sweaty gym! Bike riding is great exercise. Also…you don’t have to do cardio right after lifting. It is just more time efficient for people with a busy schedule.

AFDerrick,

You can do lat pull-downs in the same workout as chinups. You probably need to do them after chinups, unless you are really good at chins (I am not). Feel free to mix it up. No reason to be too structured as long as you are improving in chinups.

tim,

You have to live! I eat buffalo chicken wings about once a month and chicken strips about 1-2 times per month. I chase them with a cold Corona light most of the time. Just eat healthy 90% of the time and this won’t hurt you at all. Heck, it will probably help keep your body guessing to a certain extent. See…what other fitness site is going to recommend beer and buffalo wings? I love telling the truth and not saying what “sounds good”.

Helder,

Yep…I did standing barbell military presses and I know it hit my core well. The nice thing was that I was able to go heavy to really hit my shoulders as well.

Jackson,

The only way six meals per day works is if you eat nothing but small, extremely clean meals. If someone eats six meals, but has a big dinner with friends on a Saturday night…or goes out for a Thursday happy hour…they will have a tough time losing weight with the 6 meal per day approach. I like to be fit, but I enjoy having a social life and I like having higher calorie foods on occasion. Eating 2-3 meals per day allows me to enjoy beer, desserts, candy at the movie theater, the occasional brunch, etc. I can do this year-round and stay very lean in the process. When I was eating 6 times per day, I never got really lean. If I would have been extremely strict and drink a bottled water at the movies…or just ate salad when I went out to dinner it would have worked. Who wants to do that? I want to eat my grandma’s pie, my sister’s cookies, have a bratwurst and beer at Oktoberfest, etc.

Cheers,

Rusty

admin May 5, 2008 at 11:06 pm

Josh X,

Basketball and soccer are incredible forms of exercise. The only people who aren’t lean who play these sports must have a terrible diet. Seriously…when I play “21″ with two of my buddies during the summer I sweat for the next 3-4 hours. As far as fat burning goes…save some money…just take 200mg of caffeine 30-60 minutes before working out or playing basketball. It works well.

Jen,

I don’t even worry about that. I think people more often than not use their “body type” as an excuse to not get in great shape (most people who are overweight think they are endomorphs). I’d rather not even focus on this. I used to be a bit obsessed as well. I don’t really know a good author to recommend. I wish I could be of more assistance to you. It is actually a decent question, so hopefully someone reading this will have a recommendation.

Great comments,

Rusty

km May 6, 2008 at 8:12 am

these guys are little too big in my opinion but check our their pull-up routines…craziness.

niki May 6, 2008 at 12:07 pm

Rusty,
So, if the secret to great abs is low body fat percentage, is the secret to getting rid of cellulite also to have a low body fat percentage?

Also, it would be cool to have your sister be a guest contributer (or have her own blog) about body and fitness after baby. I like the comments you have had about her and her experiences.

Angie May 6, 2008 at 2:57 pm

(Hey stranger…lol)

I totally agree with you here Rusty! I see some trainers making their clients do some of the most ridiculous exercises that are supposed to be working their core. The poor clients…. My clients get one exercise for core at the end of our session..the plank…always the first one..then we move to the side plank. After that has been mastered, we do all the other core exercises (sometimes ya just gotta make um THINK they are working their core to please them..lol)

I don’t hardly work my core at all. I know that the majority of strength training workouts are working it just fine!

Jen May 6, 2008 at 6:56 pm

Niki –

Cellulite can happen to anyone no matter what their body composition is. There’s no way to get rid of cellulite, but there are things you can do to improve the appearance of. Getting circulation into your cellulite prone areas is one thing. Staying hydrated is another. There are also two new popular cellulite appearance reducing procedures out on the market. One of the is called VelaSmooth and I forget what the other one is. VelaSmooth actually has some impressive clinical results, but it’s a little expensive and time consuming. You need something like 2 treatments a week for 8 weeks. It really does improve the appearance of cellulite but there’s no quantifiable way to measure it.

Rusty -

I heard you. A lot of books I’ved read on the subject sum up body typing by saying, “If you’re reading this book you’re probably not an ectomorph”. I’m interested in body types not as an excuse but as a way to figure out what my best macronutrient ratio is. I could eat a balanced diet according to the AHA, or I could eat a diet which specifically suits me and gives me some kind of advantage over the AHA diet. Whether it’s me being able to eat more calories, or me being able to eat the same calories but stay at a lower body fat level, I don’t know.

thomas May 6, 2008 at 9:35 pm

Rusty i am 6 ft 168 . I wanna get down 3 lbs the question i was wondering if you could help an outline for me(if possible). I work out around 8 00am mon tue thur friday.
I usually workout on empty stomach and then follow this diet

My meals are
breakfeast-oatmeal(300) cals apple(380)
lunch/dinner grilled chicken salad w/ chesse & blue chesse dressing

I was wondering what suggestions you could give me for losing the weight and then suggestions maintainence diet

Thanks i know its alot

tim

jared May 6, 2008 at 9:39 pm

I was reading articles about how you eat low carb leading up to an event or a workout and then eating carbs afterwords

thanks jared

ason May 6, 2008 at 10:02 pm

I saw you had a article on high carb day and low carb days. if i was to follow this when i was doing 3 meals. would i do this
low carb- 3 chicken vegtable meals
higher carbs- 3 bows oatmeal with fruit

thanks

ason

admin May 7, 2008 at 1:26 pm

niki,

Jen gives great tips on cellulite. It will definitely help to drop body fat, but you can’t always get rid of it 100%. I wouldn’t stress to hard about this…men aren’t nearly as obsessed as women about cellulite. We don’t notice it unless it is out of control.

Angie,

Isn’t it funny that people are so focused on this whole “core” deal. People talk about it non-stop these days in the gyms that I visit. About 10 years ago nobody was mentioning it. Nice to have you comment…I need to visit your blog and see how your “Women’s Diet and Fitness” blog is doing. It looks better every time I visit. WAY more polished looking than my blog! I’m so lazy when it comes to changing up the theme on my site (I do have sweet photo’s, but my theme is a bit dated).

Jen,

Yeah…I have heard of eating different ways for different body types. I haven’t really looked into it too much. If you find out anything, let me know so I can do a post on it and point people to a good resource. I know people can get lean without the information, but perhaps this info would make it easier.

Thomas,

Your plan looks solid. What I would do is replace the oatmeal with a low calorie protein shake for the next 2-3 weeks. I would also use “Rice Vinegar” as your salad dressing for your dinner meal for the next 2-3 weeks. You lose that body fat for sure in short order if you follow this advice. Once you lose the weight you can go back to your normal diet and eat more calories to maintain.

Ason,

I would keep the protein steady for both days. So you would eat protein and veggies on low carb days, but eat protein and a bit of rice or potatoes on higher carb days. You would also add a bit more fruit on higher carb days. When you are trying to lose a lot of fat…I would do 3-4 weeks of low carb followed by a week of higher carb. Just don’t go overboard on carbs during that week. You will gain back a little weight, but you don’t want to gain all of it back.

Have a great one!

Rusty

r.b. May 8, 2008 at 4:00 am

hey rusty I just found this blog because since March I’ve been trying to get back into shape.

I’m kind of bummed on your comments about core training because I think you are right about a lot of it. However, I want to point out that it can be helpful for certain people. I used to be super fit. When I was a kid I was skinny (6 foot 1, 155 lbs) and then I worked out with heavy weights and go up to 175. About 6 years ago I hurt my back real bad snowboarding and basically couldn’t walk without a cane for six months. I didn’t work out seriously and slowly I gained about 50 pounds. My back got a lot better pain-wise even though I got way out of shape. I was pissed off about how fat I got, so I started to work out again. But, the doc said I’m not supposed to do heavy squats or even do serious running. Which sucked because that is how I got in good shape in the first place. I found a private trainer who does a lot of “core” stuff with me and it has really helped out my flexibility and strength. I also have lost 25 lbs since March. I’m at 195 now and hope to get to 170 by August. Anyway, I think a lot of standard bodybuilding and weight training exercises would be more effective but I’m stuck doing squats on a balance board holding a medicine ball for the time being. The plank is the best one, I totally agree with you there.

Also I was wondering if you had any opinion on Paul Chek? I was out of it for a while so didn’t realize “core fitness” was such a craze. I only got into it because I read on Danny Way’s website (pro skater who jumped the great wall of china) that he hired Paul Chek to get him back into shape after he broke his neck surfing. He seemed to do a lot of “core” stuff so I looked up a core trainer to help me out.

ok, that was a bit rambling but keep up the good work.

admin May 8, 2008 at 8:57 pm

r.b.

Injury rehab is a different ballgame altogether. These balancing boards and exercise balls are great for this. I’ll take a look at Paul Check. If his site looks good, I’ll do a feature post on him. Sorry to hear about your injury! I injured my back badly about 18 years ago from putting on way too much weight on a leg press machine.

Thanks for the compliments…glad to have you as a reader and contributor!

Rusty

pieper June 1, 2008 at 1:12 am

plank,yes a good exercise,it works and so on…
But I want to remember : it is just an isometric effort..
So What about isometric? It’s a crap?I noticed from Pavel that Isometric doesn’t work because hasn’t anadeguate range of ROM!
Otherwise: why don’t apply isometric(like plank) in other fieldS (chin -up weighted an so on)?
Thanks

admin June 1, 2008 at 3:06 am

Pieper,

I think the major difference here is that the main function of the abs is to stabilize, not functioning as a prime mover. This is why ROM doesn’t come into the equation.

Rusty

Chris B June 2, 2008 at 12:17 pm

I agree with your assessment of core work outs being largely unnecessary. You use your core in most exercises and aslong as you ‘activate it’ you can really focus on it in ALL exercises, some moves with weights are actually more effective for your abs than most of those Swiss ball techniques anyway.
I won’t say that they are completely useless though….I find doing the plank with my hands on the Swiss ball press up style is far more taxing than doing it on the floor. I incorporate two more exercises into this by actually doing a press up on the SB and then an ab climber when I return to the top. 3 birds killed with one stone and its intense – 3 sets of 20 performed slowly! I believe you engage your abs 40+% more doing press ups on the SB.
I study shaolin so core is vital for punching power and balance, its where all your strength comes from, Bruce lee believed that and its what Ive been taught/found for myself too.
What makes me laugh is the way they advertise these core workouts, like you can spot reduce, you know…they have the hot girl doing leg lifts in these adverts as if THAT exercise got her in that shape! Infact they shouldn’t be allowed to do that if you ask me. My mum tried to lose weight for years doing ab workouts until I found out what she was doing and explained the need to eat right and have low body fat. So many people dont know any better, so sites like this are crucial, its important to hear alternative perspectives from individuals who speak from their own experience.

admin June 2, 2008 at 11:23 pm

Chris,

I am in total agreement with you. I do my planks on a swiss ball after doing them on the floor. I think they are a good tool, but just like you…I think it needs to be kept in perspective.

Rusty

Brendan July 9, 2008 at 8:12 am

Basically, the way i see it is that if you dont think the swiss ball or bosu are useless then you arent using them properly…. I do every resistance exercise i possibly can standing on either a bosu or swiss ball…. When any of you can do squat/military press standing ontop of a fully inflated swiss ball, come and see me.
Since i have been doing this my strength in large compound movements has gone through the roof, im adding kilo after kilo to my bench, squat and deadlift so much faster than i was before i dedicated 2days a week to pure core training.
Heres a few for you all to try….

Turn a Bosu arse-up (so your standing on the flat…) take 80% of what you would normally shoulder press sitting down. Now squat until your butt hits the bosu and explode up through the squat and continue through your arms into a standing shoulder press. 8reps for 4 sets.

Work at standing up on a swiss ball…. ok now get someone to throw you a decent size med ball… 8-10kg… place the med ball in one hand and extend it all the way out to one side… then back across your body nice and slow to the other hand and then extend that arm…. do this until you physically cant do anymore!

Get a Bosu and a good cable machine… Bosu arse up again… Left leg on the bosu (yes just one leg, put the other one in the air). Set your cable machine as low as possible (angle wise)..Now take the handle of the cable machine in your right hand. Now, listen carefully… so do a single legged squat and as you explode up through the squat do a single arm row with the cable… 8reps, 3sets per leg.

Do your good ol’ hyperextensions (4 sets of 25reps), your cable crunches (4×25)and your hanging knee raises(4×25) and finish with a plank until you collapse and it feels like your rips are ripping through your skin. (My record was a 8min 33sec bridge after this routine….. and yes i will brag because its taken me years to get this far ;)

So instead of jogging away and watching people core train…. get out there and take core training to a whole new level, the only thing that limits us is the boundaries we set in our minds…. just use planks??? sounds like a boundary to me, what are you scared of? pain, failure or just hard work?

admin July 9, 2008 at 11:46 pm

Brendan,

Best counterpoint yet. Great comment…and thanks for giving people a routine to follow. I listen and consider all comments and this is probably the best argument over a post I have made.

Basic planks work wonders for me…I guess I just like the simplicity of it all.

Have a good one,

Rusty

Marcus August 23, 2008 at 3:54 pm

Hi everyone. Just found this website. Like it a lot.

I have to say that I broadly agree. As I see it, if you’re coming from a low base, you don’t need to be doing a lot of these exercises. You need to build up some basic levels of performance before you have to worry about that stuff.

These core exercises with balls and such like are very useful for someone who has been doing a lot of multi-gym/fixed weight type exercises and nothing else. Those things allow you to work one muscle group without having to put any power along the length of your body, with the result that your muscles grow without you developing any real strength at all. Adding the balls is a great way for people to start to get over that.

That being said (and I here I agree with the author), a lot of free weight exercises are very good for the core: anything where you are standing up and having to use your strength to stop your body tipping. Some of the traditional power lifting exercises are superb in this respect- like dead lifts and squats.

Now.. on to the medicine balls. I have recently discovered these and I love them. I like them a lot for abdominals (like slams and figure 8s). As I see it their main use is for explosiveness, like doing press ups with your hand on one, and pushing up to switch the ball from one hand to the other. That’s a kind of workout that is hard to get in any other way. But it’s definitely not for beginners. For me it’s more something just to shake up my workout a bit, as I get bored quite easily and need to mix in new things.

So, anyway… core exercises as we see them are probably mainly corrective for people who are victims of bad gym methods.

The Fitness News June 3, 2009 at 2:33 am

I do agree that “core training” has been totally exaggerated, but I think the reason that has happened is because a lot of people are ignoring twisting movements that use your obliques and lower back muscles.

Everyone does crunches, but no one does jack knives or torso spins.

I trained for years doing a full split routine with abs workouts and all the compound movements and everything, but one thing always lacked and caused problems and that was my ability to twist my upper body.

I didn’t do any twisting exercises, so they were very weak.

My one arm bent over rows felt like cardio and I almost got stitches in the opposing side abs when I did them.

So when I realised the problem I started doing twisting exercises and it felt really good but wasn’t enough, but then I realised that the best way to improve the twisting movement is by running!

Because you’re twisting your upper body with each step..

So if anyone feels as though their mid section is still weak or their twisting power is not fast or strong enough, try running regularly and see what happens…

By the way, 2 minute planks are SO HARD! I did an ab strength test one day and 2 minutes was the minimum to even be included on the strength rating list as “very unfit”.

It’s such a mentally hard exercise! But if you can force yourself to do it every morning it certainly feels good for the rest of the day!

velasmooth February 11, 2010 at 11:28 am

I can completely agree with what was mentioned by “the fitness news” above. Back when i was running regularly and competed in events that involved a lot of running such as “100m & 200m sprints my abs were slowly moving from a 4 pack to a 6 pack and was getting nicely toned.

This kind of went to prove how running is effectively doing crunches and twisting at the same time while of course working your core muscles. Plus your legs and arms are getting a great workout because of the nature of the excersize!

Wow…That makes me realise i need to get running on a regular basis again to get my fitness and firm abs back!

Tracey March 10, 2010 at 2:06 am

I love Peaches! I will check out Whitey now.

My advice to anyone wanting to cut weight is to stop eating wheat/gluten products. I feel so much more alive and less poopie (literally) for ditching the gluten in my diet.

Tracey March 10, 2010 at 2:18 am

Whitey, whitey whitey!!!!!!!!
I am their new, biggest fan!!!!!!!

I love new workout music so thanks to the person that suggested it in one of the above posts.

Love it, love it, love it!!!!!!!

pilates classes los angeles November 15, 2010 at 6:24 pm

I agree that you normally get a good core work out with out actually trying to just work your core. When i was swimming, I felt like I was getting the best core work out without focusing only on core.

The Mancini February 7, 2011 at 3:41 am

Hi Rusty,

Been checking your articles for a while now, interesting stuff!

I’ve read about planks from elsewhere as well and am doing those along with free weight training so I guess I got the core thing in check.

However, have you heard of inverted planks? It’s where you lie on your back and then lift your buttocks from the ground, just a bit mind, basically you have your heels touching the ground and the other part touching the ground is your upper back. Arms can be held across the chest or at your sides or even behind the neck.

I don’t remember where I read about those but they’re supposed to be similar to planks but more toward the lower back area -ish.

I’d really appreciate it if you get the time to answer to this.

Anyways, keep up the good work!

Toni August 21, 2011 at 8:19 am

I never really thought of all the different ways that your core gets a workout like from push ups and/or running but you’re absolutely right – the core has no choice but to work hard to stablize to perform those exercises therefore it does get “worked out” whether you realize it or not. I ditched the crunches awhile ago; I never really felt anything from them except a sore neck and back. Planks have quickly become one of my favorite ways to directly work my core.

On a side note: The photo of the female’s torso that you showcased near the top of the post could seriously be me (no joke). I’ve never seen a picture of another woman’s midsection that was exactly like mine (almost eerily so). I don’t know who the woman is in the photo but we are very genetically similiar…even right down to the belly button. Weird or what?!?

Thanks for all the good information.

Ryan - Beyond Weight Loss Tips August 23, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Your abs get also a good indirect workout from exercises like standing military presses etc. So getting good at lifting added to the planks makes a nice set of abs..

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