If you talk to people about their fitness goals, many will say something like, “I want to work on my core and tone up.” There is a lot of misconception about what the “core” is and what “toning up” mean, however. Let’s spell them out.
What is the core?
When people use the word “core”, often they really mean “the ab’s”, which is a reference to the rectus abdominis, a paired muscle (2 parallel muscles) covering the front of the abdomen and running from the ribs to the pubic bone. These muscles are criss-crossed with connective tissue (fascia) and, when one’s body fat is low, this makes them appear as a “six-pack”. This leads some people to believe that each small portion is its own muscle, because it looks separated from all the others.
A broader and perhaps more useful definition of “core” and “core muscles” is a grouping of muscles that surround the spine and shift or stabilize it. This grouping is a bit vague, but can help people to consider more of the body in assisting the spine with healthy movement or in stabilizing it to prevent spinal injury while exercising. Lower back pain and injury are somewhat common, so many people have personal interest in this anyway.
If you want “toned ab’s”, that’s another issue. First let’s define the word “toned”.
What does “toned” mean?
Most people say they want to be “toned” when they want to lose some body fat so they have more defined and visible muscles. Sometimes they also want slightly larger and stronger muscles. Just to be clear though, having “toned” muscles literally means muscles with increased “tone”, ie increased “tonus”, meaning more tension when at rest. Some people call this, “feeling tight” or “feeling solid.” The more you exercise and do strenuous activities, the more “tone” your muscles will have, regardless of whether or not they are covered in a fat layer, but this isn’t what most people mean when they use the word.
Instead, what people tend to want is visible musculature, but not in a ‘crazy, bodybuilder sort of way’. This makes sense to me. It seems like most people have a preference for bodies that are ‘fit’, meaning somewhat muscular and somewhat low in body fat. Having a body with these aspects would imply an amount of athleticism and that someone could do a lot with their body. And I think there’s an evolved psychological reason for that. An athletic person (“having toned muscles”) might be a good mate.
If you’re after the elusive “six-pack” or “flat stomach”, you might think doing lots of crunches and sit-ups is a good idea, in fact, ab-solutely necessary. But this isn’t so. The truth is, doing these abdominal exercises actually wastes your time: they take little energy and don’t increase metabolism significantly. Plus, if you’re doing high repetitions (like the dude who says, “I do a thousand crunches a day”), what you’re really training for is the endurance of the rectus abdominis.
What is much more effective is stabilization exercises, such as plank variations, and standing, dynamic exercises such as medicine ball throws. Why? Because, while also training the “ab’s”, these exercises recruit many additional muscle groups, thereby increasing energy output and boosting metabolism as a much larger portion of your body has to recover from the workout. This may also reduce the chances of a back injury, since you aren’t doing repeated forward spinal flexions all day long, squishing the vertebral discs toward the back.
If I want “toned muscles”, what should I do?
To increase the passive tone of muscles, and decrease body fat that is on top of them, someone would need to follow an extremely healthy diet and do fitness training that increases strength and boosts metabolism. In other words, “eat clean and train mean.” I say that one’s diet would need to be “extremely healthy” only because most Americans do not have a healthy diet, even if they report that they do. So most people may need to aim for food choices that seem “extreme” in the direction of health in order to actually be eating healthily.
When it comes to reducing bodyfat with exercise, you want more intense exercise, not small, controlled movements. Train like an athlete: full-body movements that include a strength component, such as push-ups, lunges, and carrying or throwing objects, to name a few. Also include high intensity cardio training, like sprint drills or walking stairs or jumping exercises. These will impact your bodyfat level and the visibility of your muscles much more than endless sit-ups or lower-intensity exercise will.
Here are some specific suggestions for becoming leaner (lower body fat) and stronger (more muscular):
Train 5-7 days of the week (do a variety of exercises, including challenging, strength-based movements, and interval training. Functional Fitness is your goal.)
Eat mostly plants (whole plant foods reduce disease risk and increase satiety with their high fiber and micronutrient content)
Avoid processed food, high fat dairy, alcohol (the less you consume of these, the easier it will be to achieve a healthy weight and show your higher tone muscles)
As always, consult a physician or dietician if you are concerned about your health or making significant changes to your exercise and food choices.