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Bryan Cummings (copy)

Shown here working with a client using resistance bands, physical therapist Bryan Cummings said core-strength exercises are vital to balance.

BARABOO — Core workouts. Core-building exercises. Core strength. “You’ve got to work your core!”

It seems like everyone in the fitness world is always talking about “the core,” yet does the typical person fully understand what the core is and why it matters so much?

According to Baraboo physical therapist Bryan Cummings, the core is made up of the many individual muscles and muscle groups that make up your torso, or the center of the body — all of which are essential for optimal movement and stability.

“Maintaining your core is actually quite vital to overall fitness and health,” said Cummings, co-owner of New Life Physical Therapy in Baraboo, Portage and Westfield. “Not focusing on keeping the core strong can set one up for poor posture and balance, which can put unnecessary strain on other parts of the body. This can make a person more susceptible to chronic conditions like back pain, or acute injuries like abdominal strains.”

And whether you realize it or not, your core plays an essential function in daily life. Sitting, standing, turning sideways … nearly any physical movement involves your core in some way. A debilitating injury to a weak, unstable or inflexible core — say, a core muscle injury (often, and misleadingly, called a “sports hernia”) — and one’s quality of life can be dramatically impacted.

“Your core isn’t a part of the body you want to ignore when looking to maintain or improve your fitness level and live an active life,” Cummings said. “Fortunately, there are plenty of simple exercises out there that can keep your core strong — exercises you can do anywhere because they require no special equipment.”

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Here are the “big 3” back stabilization exercises popularized by back pain researcher Stuart McGill, from “Back Mechanic,” his step-by-step method for fixing back pain:

1. Neutral lumbar spine curl-up: Begin lying on your back with your knees bent, feet resting on the floor, and your hands under your lower back. Slowly curl your upper body towards your knees, just barely enough to feel your core tighten. Then return to the starting position and repeat. Make sure your low back stays flat on the floor and maintain a gentle chin tuck during the exercise.

2. Side plank on knees: Begin lying on your side with your knees bent. Raise yourself into a side plank position with your elbow supporting upper body and knees bent. Maintain this position. Make sure to keep your trunk stiff. Do not let your hips roll forward, backward, or drop towards the floor.

3. Bird-dog: Begin on all fours, with your arms positioned directly under your shoulders and your knees resting on a cushion. Straighten your opposite arm and leg at the same time so that your leg and arm are parallel to the floor. Hold briefly before returning to the starting position. Do not let your trunk twist. Make sure to keep your back straight and chin tucked during the exercise.

If any of these exercises lead to pain or discomfort, don’t do them, Cummings said. But also don’t fret. Instead, visit a physical therapist to learn modifications or different core exercise options that take your current physical limitations into consideration. A physical therapist can also assess the cause of the discomfort and limitations, then help put you on a path toward a more active, pain-free life.

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