25 May 2018Last updated

Healthy body

Hard to the core: Body-sculpting exercises

Two top fitness gurus give us the low-down on the illusive but widely revered body-sculpting legend that is core strength

By Louisa Wilkins
24 Jun 2013 | 08:53 am
  • Healthy Body

    Of course having a toned core looks great, but more importantly it feels great – and it means your body is supported and stabilised.


Keith Littlewood is a functional medicine expert specialising in pain relief, posture and performance. Through his company Balanced Body Mind (, he offers everything from weight loss and nutrition advice to injury rehabilitation and strength building guidance. Here he shares his core knowledge.

What exactly is the core?
The core is really the interaction of all the muscles in the body, but specific attention is paid to two areas – the inner unit, which comprises the tranversus abdominus, multifidus, diaphragm and pelvic floor; and the outer unit, which comprises the abdominals and internal and external obliques. In reality these muscles work in tandem with many other muscles to create structural balance. The muscles of the neck are also so-called core muscles.

Have we always had problems keeping our core strong, or is it just ‘modern day living’ that is making us soft-cored?
The core needs to be recruited appropriately, and that should occur with proper
movement development. As such, there are many factors that can lead to issues
with the core, such as not developing good crawling patterns as a young child. You
may have been rushed into walking, or put in a baby crawler, which affected how your muscle movement developed. Also, the seated position is not great for the spine, and muscles can become inhibited as other muscles get overworked. The body will always take the path of least resistance when it comes to muscle activation, so if you have a desk-bound job, instead of counteracting the effects and keeping the core strong, your body will allow it to become soft. Also sitting disrupts breathing patterns, which can cause core issues too.

Why does the core need so much work to stay strong?
It actually doesn’t need as much as you think – many people make the mistake
of thrashing their abdominal muscles and thinking they are having a good core
workout. In reality, this can cause the core muscles to become inhibited. So core
training often involves reducing the tension in other overused muscles and neurological re-education (meaning retraining the brain-to-muscle messages).

Are there any risks that are specific to women?
Females have a larger pelvic basin than men. Therefore more attention needs to
paid to the lumbo-pelvic area, as increased pelvic tilt can occur through over- or
underuse of certain muscles. You don’t need to obsess about counteracting this
with intense core training, but I strongly believe that women should deadlift for
strong hamstrings, glutes and back.

Anything else you want to add?
Yes! Many people make the mistake of drawing their belly in all the time which activates the TrA (transversus abdominus muscle). Some people do it even when they are walking. This is a disaster as it creates facilitation of muscles associated with breathing, creating a pushed-forward head posture, rounded back and weak
links in the chain from head to toe. In fact, some schools of thought believe that letting your belly hang out and pushing it outwards increases abdominal pressure and stabilising mechanisms that are just as good – and if not better – for core strength than tensing your tummy muscles.

What would you say to someone who doesn’t believe in working out their core muscles?
If you have ever suffered from pain anywhere in your body, it is probably because some muscles somewhere aren’t working properly. In most cases, pain is avoidable with the right type of exercise, and you don’t have to work yourself into the ground to have a healthy, working muscular system. And it may not always be down to your core – issues like ankle injuries can create instability, which can have knock-on effects. So you could have the strongest core in the world, but if you fail to address your weak link, you may never solve the pain.

Kirsty MacPherson is a Pilates instructor and co-founder of Phoenix Rising
( As a selfconfessed Pilates-nut, she has a big belief in the importance of core strength.

Was Pilates invented specifically to work the core muscles?
Pilates – which was originally called Contrology – was invented by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s. It was originally used as a rehabilitation programme for prisoners of war and was later found to be of great benefit to anyone seeking a higher level of fitness. The practice was kept alive over the years by a small group of devoted students until just a few years ago, when exercise science caught up to the principles that Pilates had been teaching all along, causing the rich evolution of Pilates we have today.

What differences can someone expect to see from doing Pilates?
There are a huge number of differences people will see and feel in their body such as increased flexibility, improved breathing and concentration, enhanced muscle tone, more stabilised joints and, of course, stronger core muscles. Some clients even feel taller and slimmer – the improved posture, rolled back shoulders, head in alignment with spine all help to feel this. Joseph Pilates said that after 10 sessions you’ll feel the difference, in 20 you will see the difference and after 30 you’ll have a whole new body.

What difference has it made to your physical health?
For me, Pilates was the only thing that was able to give me relief from chronic lower back pain – the cause of which was never properly diagnosed. Pilates immediately struck a chord, helping to enhance my entire health and well-being, and it was the only therapy that could keep me pain-free.

What difference does having toned core muscles make to your body?
The core muscles are the deep, internal muscles of the abdomen and back. When the core muscles are strong and doing their job, as they are trained to do in Pilates, they work in tandem with the more superficial muscles of the trunk to support the spine and movement. As you develop your core strength, you develop stability throughout your entire torso. This is one of the ways Pilates helps people overcome back pain. As the trunk is properly stabilised, pressure on the back is relieved and the body is able to move freely and efficiently. Of course having a toned core looks great, but more importantly it feels great – and it means your body is supported and stabilised.

Pilates is known for being great for core strength. Why is this?
Core strength is definitely at the foundation of Pilates exercises. However, the Pilates method treats the body as a whole and is designed to encourage the body to move as one. Other exercises, for example weightlifting or swimming, can focus a lot of attention on arm or leg strength without considering that these limbs are connected to the rest of the body – often the muscles are worked in isolation.

Ultimately, those who are really successful at their sport will learn to use their core muscles, but in Pilates this integrative approach is learned from the very beginning. This is in some part because of the preciseness of the movements, the use of breathing and the concentration of the movement and muscles being used. As such, the muscles in the core are used in a way they may not have been before, as other muscles may have been doing the job. Pilates is often likened to conducting an orchestra – it’s about balancing all the instruments, turning down those that are too loud (often the bigger, stronger, more superficial muscles nearer to the surface/outside of the body), and allowing the smaller, quieter and often underused muscles (which tend to be deeper in the body) to take on some of the work.

By Louisa Wilkins

By Louisa Wilkins