We hear the term core muscles tossed around all of the time. When most people hear it, they think of endless sit-ups and 6-pack abs. We are bombarded with different “core” workouts daily in magazines, newspapers and online. We hear how important a strong core is to athletes from golfers to baseball players to swimmers. And it is frequently the answer to how to relieve various pains: “My back hurts after driving – strengthen your core”; “My knees hurt when squatting – strengthen your core”; my neck hurts working on my computer – strengthen your core.” So if the core is so important, why is it so difficult to define?

The answer is that there is no exact definition of what constitutes the muscles of the core. If you type in “core muscles” as an Internet search and click on the first 10 listings, odds are you’ll find at least 5 different lists of what make up the core muscles. However, there are some muscles that are universally accepted. Those include the various muscles of he abdomen, such as the rectus abdominus and obliques. The smaller muscles that surround the lumbar spine are also accepted. They include the erector spine and multifidus. The main function of these muscles is stability and protection of the spine and internal organs.

But let’s take it a step further. If stability is a key function of a core muscle, a number of other muscles can claim to be included. For example, the iliopsoas muscle’s main job is to flex the hip. It runs from the sacrum and the pelvic bone to the femur. But it also plays a key role for a smooth gait in walking and running. And tight or weak muscles lead to increased stress on those low back stabilizers. Should it be included as a core muscle?

How about the gluteal muscles? There are 3 of them, maximus, medius and minimus. Two start from the pelvic bone and the largest also partly attaches to the bottom of the spine (sacrum and coccyx). They all attach on the end to the outside of the femur (that bump most people call their hip). Their job is to pull the leg back and out to the side. But they also help stabilize the pelvis. And along the lines of stability, watch someone with weak gluteal muscles try to squat…they look like Bambi as a baby trying to stand! Core muscle? I’d say so.

In fact, my definition of the core includes any muscle between the bottom of the rib cage and mid-thigh. But ultimately, the exact definition doesn’t really matter as long as the concept and importance of a strong core are accepted. Treatment for everything from knee pain to neck pain should include a core strengthening program. And any athlete looking to improve his or her performance MUST include an aggressive core program no matter the sport. Injury prevention? You guessed it; a strong core goes a long way.