Question #20: How do I explain that sit ups will not build a strong core?

Many of our clients come to us after a physician has advised that they need core strengthening to stop their back pain. Core stabilizing exercises for the lay person translates into sit ups or ab curls because that is what they know as abdominal work.

The difficulty is that no one has taken the time to explain what the “core” actually is, and how to properly strengthen it.

You might start by explaining in simple terms that we actually have 29 core muscles, only 2 of which are used primarily in a sit up. The client doesn’t need to know that names of each, just drop that fun fact so they can start to understand the complexity of the core.

Then explain that sit ups aka spinal flexion is just one way to use some of the core muscles. For the spine (and core) to have integrity, we must move in all directions and planes of movement, and have balanced stability in the trunk when the limbs move. A healthy spine has optimal range of motion, and uses all muscles evenly and in a coordinated way when moving, balancing or standing still.

Ask the client to think of how we sit all day. Most sit for many hours and often at a desk with hunched posture. We, in essence, are in a sit up (spine flexed) position all day. So if this is the case and your back hurts, how will doing the same thing over and over improve your back?

Now it’s time to get them moving so they can actually feel how their core is used in each. Here are some examples….

  • Marching (alternating from the mat then from double tabletop)
  • Quadruped arm/leg reach (bird dog)
  • Side bridge

In the end, education is really the missing piece. Clients don’t know what they don’t know. Show them and allow them to experience how their entire core works in every movement, and soon they will notice their back feels better.

Do you have a question related to your teaching or movement practice? Send it to to be featured in a future Ask Holly.

Written by
Holly Wallis, Certified Movement & Rehabilitation Specialist, PMA®-CPT
Director of US Operations, Body Harmonics Pilates & Movement Institute
Studio Director, ReActive Movement, 6200 LaSalle Ave, Oakland, CA 94611

© Movement Monthly 2019. All rights reserved.

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