The core values of workouts

Balancing routines help strengthen the body's trunk

Health & Fitness

February 18, 2005|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,Special to the Sun

On a Thursday night with spring break looming just a few weeks away, several dozen young women waited for the 7 p.m. "Abs and Buns" class at Loyola College Fitness and Athletic Center to begin.

Dressed in T-shirts and sweats, their hair pulled back into ponytails, they sat on the floor comparing notes on how many calories they ate that day, the abs, arms and legs they just worked in the busy weight room, the miles they ran to nowhere on elliptical trainers and treadmills. They wanted bikini-worthy results, and they wanted them fast.

Fitness instructor and Loyola junior Elizabeth Edelman noted the women as she readied her fitness studio for a balance training class and sighed. "It's all about calories here," she explained. "The classes that burn the most calories tend to be the most popular."

But a growing number of people at Loyola and across the country are recognizing the importance of another type of training -- core training. These are workouts that strengthen muscles in the trunk of the body, such as the abdomen, chest and back. And they're focusing not just on calories burned or body parts worked, but on one of the hottest fitness trends of the year: balance.

In Edelman's class, called "Bosu Core," participants balance their abdomens, shoulders and knees on a Bosu Balance Trainer, a rubber dome mounted on a plastic platform, and do crunches, leg lifts and other moves.

Working to keep their bodies stable causes them to work their transverse abdominal or "core" muscles. One false move and be prepared to hear the thwack of someone's palms hitting the floor.

"The first step is just gaining your balance," explained Colleen Tretola, a Loyola College senior from Cranford, N.J., who has been working on balance for the last year in Bosu and Pilates classes.

Stabilizing the body

Balance isn't just something for gymnasts prancing across 4-inch-wide balance beams anymore. Many football and tennis players, runners, skiers, golfers and other athletes and fitness enthusiasts regularly engage in some form of balance training to improve their performance on and off the field.

"There are a lot of reasons why balance is important," says Eddie Hall, head trainer at Baltimore Fitness & Tennis in Pikesville, who uses some form of balance training in the workouts he creates for all his clients. "Balance helps keep you better coordinated so that you can prevent yourself from falling," he says. "Balance also helps prevent lower back pain."

Balance or stability training can be done in weight rooms or in fitness classes using such equipment as Bosu, stability balls and wobble boards, or by engaging in Pilates or yoga. Even lifting weights while standing on one leg will help work your balance.

"By creating an unstable environment, you're forcing the body to work harder," Hall says. A strong core means a more stable body. With such far-reaching benefits and a variety of applications, it's no wonder that the American Council on Exercise named balance training the top fitness trend of 2005.

"Improving balance can have a direct positive impact on activities we enjoy," says Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, a San Diego-based trade organization for fitness professionals.

That's what Heather Folau discovered after she began working with a stability ball during her workouts with Hall about a year ago. Folau, 31, is trim and athletic. But with two children, ages 1 and 4, and "a lot of back problems," the Reisterstown woman wanted to strengthen her upper body.

Since starting stability training, she says her back pain has subsided, her posture has improved and she has more strength to lift and carry her children.

"After having two babies, this is an easy sell," she says.

And then there's the connection between balancing your mind and balancing your body -- something Kim Manfredi, owner of Midtown Yoga Studio in Baltimore, works on achieving with her clients.

"People are yearning for balance," she says. "When they come to yoga, many of them are looking for balance in their lives." Achieving yoga's concept of balance calls for a union of effort and relaxation, what Manfredi calls "the doing and the being."

A strong core

Why worry about balance?

"Think of your body as a chain," says Rob Marra, a trainer at Meadow Mill Athletic Club in Hampden. "Your arms and legs are doing different things, walking, lifting, etc. But your core, your torso, that's your anchor," he explains. An anchor that's weak won't stabilize your arms and legs well, thus making a body more at risk for injury. "There's balance involved in everything we do, you just don't realize it," Marra adds.

And the older you become, the more your body needs balance, he says. "As you age, you lose motor units. The message from the brain to the muscles becomes much less efficient."

Keeping a strong core can offset this loss of function, even among seniors.

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