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18 November 2011 17:13 | By Tom Fontaine, contributor, MSN Him

Core fitness: why you need it and how to get it

Core fitness: why you need it and how to get it (© Adam Gault-OJO Images-Getty Images)

It's a buzz word that's thrown around the gym more often than a sweaty towel, but what is core fitness, why do you need it and - more importantly - how do you go about getting it?

It's a four-letter, one-syllable word, but few fitness terms are as misunderstood as the mysterious part of the body we refer to as the 'core'.

Most men assume strengthening the core muscles means doing endless crunches and other stomach exercises, but in fact it requires building up dozens of muscles attached to the hips, pelvis and lower back as well as the abdominals.

It's not uncommon for blokes to ignore the core in its entirety and instead focus on developing the so-called 'mirror muscles' that they can see. But do so at your peril. As personal trainer Gavin Walsh explains: "Effective core training requires all of the core muscles working in sync. To make progress in the gym, they need to be working together."

Once you've mastered this, the pay-off is immense. So here's our guide to the many advantages of getting hard-core with your fitness.

Find more fitness tips from Gavin Walsh at his website bootcampathome.com

Core benefits

Strengthening your core muscles means more than being able to go longer and harder in the gym; your health and wellbeing will also benefit.

Walsh says: "A strong core is essential in helping us prevent injuries such as lower back pain, improving posture and balance on top of the boost to your sporting performance.

Man doing chin-ups on gym apparatus (© Fuse-Fuse-Getty Images)

Core exercises aid your movement and, because they centre your spine, improve your posture

"The core refers to our midsection; all the muscles from the hips up to the shoulders. These include the transversus abdominis, the internal and external obliques and the quadratus lumborum. These muscles act together as a control centre for the body's balance and stability. Core fitness is fitness training that provides strength and conditioning exercises to support how you move, work and play every single day."

Your posture improves because core exercises centre your spine, making you more erect. You'll find yourself doing what your mum used to tell you to do - standing up straight and appearing slimmer and taller.

On MSN Him: the hidden benefits of improving your posture

A robust core also goes hand in hand with losing weight (more muscle means you burn more calories, even when you're not exercising), reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and, because you'll be covered head-to-toe in lean muscle, you'll receive a major kick to your self-esteem.

The main benefit of core training is, of course, to your fitness levels. Walsh says: "Many personal trainers and fitness gurus teach that in order to get stronger you need to lift heavy weights, do more repetitions and do more sets. This is true to a certain degree.

Man performing a dead lift (© Mel Curtis-Digital Vision)

Some traditional exercises, like the deadlift, are among the best core movements you can try

"However, if the deep core muscles of your lower back and abdominals aren't up to scratch, you will soon hit a training plateau and any improvements in strength, speed, endurance and power will soon slow down. All fitness programmes should be built on solid foundations and core conditioning needs to be part of these foundations.

"You can lose weight and get fit without performing focused core training. However, improving your core muscles will see you lift heavier, run faster and perform better in your chosen sport. If you are at all serious about your exercise and training there needs to be some form of core conditioning within your exercise regime."

On Bing: find a personal trainer near you

How to train for core fitness

The good news is, developing your core muscles is simple; you just need to work core-boosting sessions into your weekly fitness programme and - crucially - make sure you put the hours in.

Of course, learning to do the right exercises is also key. Walsh says: "When people think of core exercises they automatically think of working the abdominals. But, as we've already said, core muscles work as a team so need to be trained as a team.

Man exercising on a Swiss ball (© Jupiterimages-Comstock Images)

Exercising on a Swiss ball allows you to target several core muscles at once

"Isolated abdominal exercises only work the superficial core muscles and we therefore need to focus on exercises that target several of our core muscles, such as Swiss ball exercises and other functional movements like wood chops.

"This doesn't mean we should just forget about traditional exercises. The deadlift is one of the best core movements out there. Kettlebells, meanwhile, are not only fantastic for fat loss and muscle definition, they also improve all the core muscles, so practice the kettlebell swing and the Turkish get-up as these are great all rounders. Consult an expert trainer if you don't know what these are. Finally, if you have time to attend yoga or pilates classes, then these are both excellent for core conditioning."

You don't have to forego all your favourite workouts or sports to make room for core workouts, just try and leave room in all or most of your gym sessions for a bit of core strengthening.

Man doing yoga on a beach (© Photodisc-Photodisc-Getty Images)

Core training isn't just about weights! Yoga and pilates are both excellent ways to improve core conditioning

Walsh continues: "Core training will set the foundation for all strength, power, speed and agility training. So, when starting a training programme, it is hugely important to implement core exercises as often as you can - each and every session if possible. This will help prevent injuries, improve technique and set you up for future success. If you're a little more experienced then you should already be performing a variety of core exercises. Remember, sit-ups don't count!"

On Bing: recommended kettleball exercises

On Bing: learn how to do a Turkish get-up

Suggested core session

Try adding one of these short, sharp sessions to your workout to start building up your core to rock-hard levels.

Walsh says: "Use the 'core' Luke! Start with three Turkish get-ups with a light weight, followed by one minute of extended plank in full press-up position, repeating five times with a short break in between each.

"For the second core session, try doing this extended plank for as long as you can. This way you can easily measure your progress. One minute is poor, three is average, five is good and anything longer than seven minutes is excellent."

On Bing: how to perform plank exercises properly

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