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Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA

I shy away from blanket statements when offering fitness advice. The intricacies of individual human anatomy and physiology aren’t quite as unique as a fingerprint, but everyone’s body has its own quirks, abilities and limitations. Offering one-size-fits-all prescriptions is irresponsible at best, dangerous at worst.

That said, I’m confident stating loud and clear that everyone needs to work on their core strength (yes, I said everyone – even you six-pack bikini models). A strong, functionally sound core enhances every aspect of physical life. Having visible abs is great, but all that means is your body fat percentage is low, which is a result of diet more than anything else. In order to add some go to your show, you need to make intelligent exercise choices that train the core the way it’s intended.

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But first, some context.

Core anatomy

Core training can be confusing. A big part of that confusion stems from the lack of consensus over what the core even is. If we’re going to get all scientific, then the core includes every muscle that attaches to the pelvis and spine – as many as 35 muscles, including powerhouses such as the trapezius, the lats and the glutes, not to mention more obscure muscles including the transverse abdominis, multifidus and quadratus lumborum.

If that seems like a lot of muscles, well, it is! So let’s simplify things. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on three muscle groups:

  • The rectus abdominis (a.k.a. the six-pack)
  • The obliques
  • The spinal erectors

Core function and benefits

Contrary to depictions in popular culture, the core is responsible for more than impressing people at the beach. The core performs movement – hip flexion, spinal extension, torso rotation – but it also resists, or prevents, those very same movements. On top of that, the core acts as a bridge between the upper and lower body, transferring kinetic energy between these two areas. Think of a sprinter pumping their arms as their legs chug-a-lug along the track; that arm movement feeds into the leg movement, propelling the runner faster and faster. Now think of the same sprinter trying to run with their hands tied behind their back.

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Of course the benefits of a strong core aren’t limited to the world of high-level athletics. Improved posture, an end to low back pain, overall injury resilience and an arguably eye-pleasing aesthetic quality are also yours for the taking, so long as you put in the work.

Core exercises

There are lots of muscles in this thing fitness writers have christened The Core. Thankfully, those muscles work in a reciprocal manner so you don’t need to master three dozen different exercises. A handful of movements will deliver the goods. The key is to train the core as the central unit in a complex machine with multiple moving parts, because that’s exactly what it is.

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Rectus Abdominis

Here we have the star of the show, the vanity muscle de jour. The abs are responsible for, among other things, bending the torso forward at the hips (an action called lumbar flexion). Fear mongering over the potential for low back injuries during flexion exercises has gotten out of control. Yes, you can do crunches to strengthen your abs. The McGill Curl Up and plate crunches are staples of my training programs, and I’ve yet to destroy any clients’ backs (or my own). More advanced trainees will see great results from hanging knee and leg raises and ab rollouts.

And then there’s the plank, along with its many variations. It may not be fancy, but it works.

The Obliques

There are two layers of the obliques; the external layer runs along the side of your core, from the armpit to the hips, with the internal layer lying underneath. These muscles bend the torso sideways at the hips and rotate the torso side-to-side. More importantly, they work to resist both of these movement patterns, stabilizing and safeguarding the spine.

I’m not a fan of lateral bending, with one exception – the kettlebell windmill. This exercise works wonders for the obliques as well as the hips and the lower back, specifically a pesky pair of muscles called the quadratus lumborum. Resisting lateral flexion is easy – hold a heavy-ish weight in one hand like a suitcase and march!

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When it comes to training the rotational function of the obliques, the best exercises are the ones that prevent movement. The aforementioned ab rollouts and plank variations will do the trick, but my fave is the Pallof Press. It’s safe, scalable to any ability and it hits just about every muscle from the knees to the neck.

Spinal Erectors

These postural muscles run the length of the back and work to keep the torso upright while resisting excessive spinal arching. Back extensions and Romanian deadlifts do an excellent job of strengthening these muscles by moving you through a complete range of motion. This approach may not be ideal for those with a history of back issues, in which case we turn to a couple of awesomely named exercises: the dead bug and the bird dog.

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