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Remember when you did hundreds of sit-ups in the quest for six-pack abs?

Now we know that those muscles, rectus abdominis, are only part of the deal.

Today, it’s all about core strength. Your core includes all the muscles in your torso—abdominals, back, hips, butt and hamstrings—all of which are critical muscles for daily living, athletics and good health.

Dr. Cherise Russo of NorthShore University HealthSystem, who works with patients ranging from high school athletes to professional football players, sees a direct correlation between core strength and the ease of daily movements and athletic performance. The core muscles support and protect your spine and allow for easy movement in all directions, coordinating the upper and lower body.

A strong core…

  • Allows you to easily complete daily tasks like picking up a heavy bag of groceries, reaching for a book on a high shelf, sitting at your desk, or even getting dressed.
  • Provides balance and stability, especially in your lower back. Your stable core adjusts for changing terrain when you walk, keeps you upright on black ice, and provides a solid center for lunges at the gym.
  • Supports good posture, which allows your organs to function optimally and makes you taller. Strong muscles in your middle pull it all in and make you look thinner.
  • Gives you the muscle strength for critical functions like labor and delivery, continence, and even improved physical intimacy.
  • Powers your athletic endeavors. Whether you run, walk, swim, bike, golf or play tennis or basketball, the core provides the muscle energy for all sports. A strong core will make you a better athlete.
  • Reduces the risk of injury. According to Dr. Russo, women lacking core strength often suffer pain in the lower back, SI joint, knee, hip flexor and even into the foot, as a weak core forces other muscles to do more work than they are designed to handle.

Pay close attention to your core strength to power through the day, whether you’re chasing a toddler, going from one meeting to the next, shoveling snow or playing a vigorous game of tennis. A strong core will help keep your body functioning at the highest level, help prevent injuries and keep you comfortable in your own skin.

Eric Smoot of Redefined Fitness helps athletes improve their performance by strengthening their entire core. He suggests doing these four exercises several times a week to help strengthen those important muscles.

Side Crunch
Works: abductors, obliques

  • Lie on your left side with your right hand behind your head
  • Raise your right leg and right arm
  • Return to starting position
  • Repeat 5-10 times on each side

Moving Plank
Works: abductors, adductors, rectus abdominis

  • Start in forearm plank
  • Shift your hips from right to left
  • Hold each position for 1 second
  • Repeat 5-10 times

Pilates Crunch
Works: rectus abdominis, hip flexors

  • Lie on your back, with one leg bent and the other straight
  • Extend your arms overhead
  • Bring your arms and the extended leg up
  • Return to starting position
  • Repeat 5-10 times on each leg

Transverse Lunge
Works: glutes, quadriceps

  • Start standing with feet wider than hip distance apart, knees bent
  • With your right leg, take a big step to the left and lunge
  • Hold for 2 seconds
  • Come back to center
  • Step back with the left leg
  • Repeat 3 times on each leg