The core is a misunderstood word. People often think it refers solely to the stomach muscles. This is only part of the core, however. The core also includes the back muscles, pelvic floor muscles, and diaphragm. Moreover, the core is connected to the legs, so the butt and thigh muscles also play an important role in core strength and stability.
Another common misconception is that the “six pack” equals a strong core. The six-pack muscle, or rectus abdominis, is the most visible of the stomach muscles, so it gets all the attention. However, real strength comes from the deeper muscles, like the transverus abdominis (stomach muscle), which you can’t see, but which is continuously engaged during a properly executed Pilates practice. When you “scoop” your stomach, or pull your navel in and up towards the spine, you are engaging this deep muscle.
It’s important to understand that exercises such as ab crunches and sit-ups will not strengthen your entire core. They will strengthen a section of your core—the superficial muscle, the rectus abdominis, as mentioned above. The best core exercises are those that work the entire core—front and back— including the deeper muscles, simultaneously.
So why is it so important to build and maintain core strength?
The core is the sturdy, central link connecting the upper and lower body. When strong, the core muscles stabilize the entire torso and create a strong base of support. As a result, one is able to move well—powerfully, freely (with a good range of motion and flexibility), and with balance and control.
Therefore, when you build a strong core, you will notice a difference in all physical activities in your life; even the simple ones to which you never gave much thought, such as standing, walking, bending down, etc.
Core strength also promotes better breathing. The diaphragm is part of the core muscles, and when you work on inhaling and exhaling fully, as you do in Pilates, the increased amount of oxygen improves the body’s overall performance.
Ultimately, a weak core is detrimental to the body’s health. It results in poor posture, lower back pain, and makes you more prone to injuries.
Pilates is undeniably the most effective exercise for strengthening the core, which is why it has become so popular in recent years. When you build a strong core, your body is transformed (and that’s not overstating it!). You sit and stand taller, you’re free of common back and shoulder pain, you’re stronger in all physical activities, and generally, you just move better! I speak from my experience with my own body, as well as from my experience with my students and fellow Pilates instructors. In order to have a healthy body, everyone needs to do core-strengthening exercises on a regular basis!