We polled our trainers and the number one complaint from new clients – that dreaded mid-section. Whether it’s strengthening the core to support the lower back better, or showing off those chiseled abs a bit, most clients mention the core as one of the top areas for improvement. Since uncovering those abs requires a lot of discipline, attention to nutrition and a solid training plan, we spoke to our All Star Trainer, Andrea Franco to explore the core and a few tips on how to whittle that middle.


What is the core?

You might be surprised to hear this but, your core is not just what you see in the mirror. It’s really a lot more than that. The local system extends from your diaphragm all the way down to your pelvic floor. This also includes transverse and internal obliques, and multifidus. The global system of the core connects the spine to the pelvis. This includes the psosas, external obliques, rectus abdominisa (or your future six pack!) glute medius and adductors. It’s a pretty extensive system that’s connecting your pelvis to your spine, huh?


Beyond these two systems is what’s known as the movement system which connects the spine and the pelvis to the extremities – the lats, hip flexors hamstrings and quadriceps.


So, the key takeaway – the core itself is your center of gravity and where all movement originates.


The core is key to safe and effective movement and maximizing strength and power. If your core is weak your body will compensate in ways that it was not designed –  referred to as synergistic dominance.


For example, if your chest is weak, and you do heavy chest presses, your tricep muscles will take over to complete the movement you’re telling your body to do. This disfunction creates inefficient and ineffective movement that will increase your risk of injury and prevent you from gaining that strength you’re working so hard to build. Another common example of synergistic dominance? The lower back covering the tracks of a weak core which usually manifests itself in lower back pain.


The first step to building core power is understanding how to properly engage your core. Franco likes to have her clients start by squeezing the glutes, drawing in the navel and bracing your core as if you were about to take a punch. Then make sure your spine is neutral and neck in line and shoulders down.


People think of the core as just your belly, but Franco urges you to think of it as a cylindrical soda can extending from the top of your diaphragm all the way to your pelvic floor. When you think about breathing, breath into that cylinder and pop all the dents out of that can!


There are five training methods Franco and the Trainers at In-Shape use to whittle that middle and build power in the core.


1. Training in the plank position: It’s no surprise plank is top of this list. Holding that braced core in this position for an extended period of time hits the local, global and movement systems. So, whether it’s holding a standard forearm or extended plank, doing a lateral plank walk or a plank drag (where you grab something underneath you and slide back and forth) training in the plank position works wonders for the core.

For more information on the Plank, visit our blog post: In The Know: Side Plank vs. Regular Plank 


2.  Single arm or leg exercise: You can turn almost anything into a core movement simply by making it single arm or single leg. This challenges your balance and makes sure that core fires up to support the movement. Franco’s favorites? The deadbug or a bird dog, and shoulder presses with one leg up and off the ground to create instability.


3. Playing with load: Another popular way to train the core is by playing with load, or as Franco referred to them – unilateral movements with load. This is effective because in order to keep the body neutral in these positions, engaging the core and firing up the other side is critical. She loves throwing the single arm suitcase deadlift into her programming to achieve this load imbalance.


4. Rotation: The elusive obliques that create the waist run down the sides of the abdominals can be hard to target but as mentioned above, play a huge role in overall strength and stability of the core. Anything with a rotation will fire up these bad boys. Standing med ball rotations are a great place to start.  


5. Training on an unstable surface: To round out these training methods, try standing on a bosu ball (or another unstable surface) and doing a set of bicep curls. Because the core is not just what you can see in the mirror, standing on an unstable surface will work from the inside out and make you stronger overall.


All five of these core training methods have one thing in common – a properly braced core position. By keeping Franco’s tips in mind, you’ll have more power and decrease your chance of injury. But remember, these exercises are only as good as your proper core engagement – so if you can hold plank for five minutes, but your hips are elevated, you’re not getting the same benefits. Focus first on form, then on duration – kinda like that whole quality vs. quantity thing your teacher used to say.


Franco shared that in her experience, while not surprising, many people spend a lot of time on the muscles you can see rather than the stabilizer muscles. While this may make those assets pop, it can create muscle imbalances and lead to less motor control. So, even though you can’t see them those stabilizer muscles are the unsung heroes making up your core team. They are key to overall athletic performance.


Remember, our Trainers are always here to help so feel free to stop anyone in blue, anytime. We’ve got your back.