Why I don’t prescribe core exercises

As a Sports Physiotherapist, I design plenty of exercise programs for patients.

They have specific goals that usually link to the cause of the current injury and/or a desired performance goal.

Either way it’s not just a recipe of push vs pull or quads, hammies, glutes.

Typically the most common bit of feedback I get is “but what about core exercises?” or “can you also give me core exercises?

For me, this thinking shows the common misconception of the function of the core as well as how it should be trained.

Common core exercises

We all know the classic core exercises: planks, sit-ups and crunches.

They referred to as “core” exercises because you can feel your abs on fire. And that’s got to be good, right?

But you need to wonder why we’re training the core…

Is it just for rippling abs (although this will be achieved better through diet and body fat reduction than any crunches)?

Is it for improved abdominal strength without a specific goal?

Or is it improved core function?

Strength training for weight loss
Typically the most common bit of feedback I get is "but what about core exercises?" or "can you also give me core exercises?"

I’d suggest it should be the third option – improving what the core can do rather than its aesthetic or shear strength (although Instagram seems to reinforce option #1 *eye roll*).

To understand the function of the core, you need to look at the way humans move.

Core muscles and how we move

Why do runners swing their arms? Why does a baseball pitcher lead with their leg?

These movements are all designed to either store energy or to counteract movements.

The core’s job is essentially to transfer energy from one end of the body to the other.

A runner’s core needs to function with the arm swing to counter leg drive and maintain trunk alignment.

To ensure the leg pushing backwards doesn’t rotate the body, we instinctively throw the opposite arm forwards to offset that twist.

A golfer uses their core to store energy as the hips rotate forwards while the shoulders continue to rotate backwards.

When lifting weights or moving through a walking lunge, your core is involved in stabilizing the trunk to maintain its position against the force of the weight or balance challenges.

(If you feel like you’ve strained your core muscles, we wrote a post about self-diagnosis of abdominal muscle strains).

Negative effects of focusing on core

With an increased amount of instability, there is greater activation of the core as it works harder to maintain balance.

But this is traded off with reduced activation of the arm or leg muscles.

As the force generated by the arms or legs is not on a stable platform, the brain reduces the output of anything outside the centre of balance as it would only add to the instability.

That leads to reduced lifting capacity.

So adding a bosu ball to every exercise may seem more challenging but you’re probably reducing the potential benefit of that exercise.

Take home message on core exercises

When I get asked about why I haven’t included core exercises, I explained that every exercise performed well includes core strengthening as well as improvements in core function, simply by focusing on good technique.

This will have a greater correlation to the movement patterns of sport and the performance improvements from the program.