But, what's the goal?

By Brian Cole, Personal Training Associates

We have a combination of muscle groups popularly (but not very specifically) referred to as our "core." For the purpose of this column, I'm going to define that as everything except arms, legs and head.

This time of year with more skin (and body fat) about to be on display, some folks are in a bit of a panic. Sorry, but this column is not about how to show off perfect abs in only five minutes a day/in 30 days/in a week or whatever commercials and magazine cover articles are currently promising.

For all you quick-fixers though:

Want to look better in five minutes? Go to a mirror. Now just stand taller. That's better posture and from all angles, you look better. The problem is, you have to safely develop the muscles to hold you there. All day.

This column is mostly about "non-mirror muscles." Our foundation. Deep postural muscles that provide stability and sustain posture and help us balance and allow us to function efficiently.

First, let's consider an old stand-by. We used to call them sit-ups, then research altered how we should do them and renamed them crunches.

What's the goal? I'm guessing it's visible abdominal muscles. The cutely named six-pack. So the goal is appearance not function. That's a perfectly valid goal. Vanity (in perspective) is a great motivator for most of us. Fact is, though, your body fat has to first be very low for your defined abs to really show. For men, that's possible (although very difficult for most) while still being healthy. For women (other than air-brushed photoshopped cover models), the body fat has to be too low. We can't spot reduce. It is physiologically impossible to burn body fat from a chosen specific area. A million crunches a day don't target and therefore reduce abdominal fat. Bodyfat is gained and lost over the whole body. Period.

Speaking of periods, if a woman loses enough overall body fat to have visible abdominals she is probably amenorrheic. That's cessation of her natural menstrual cycle. She also will have minimal breast tissue left unless it's surgically enhanced. If all that sounds like a sensible goal, see "in perspective" under vanity.

Hey, we all have six-pack abs. All cadavers show them. The point is most people can't and most women shouldn't get their body fat low enough to show them. A healthy body fat percentage for women is in the low 20s. For men, in the teens. I'm not advocating more fat—we're the fattest nation in the world. I'm advocating being healthy, having realistic goals and doing what we need to do to enjoy all aspects of life for as long as we can. Visible abdominal muscles just don't rank very high.

Crunches, in moderation, aren't dangerous I guess, but they aren't very purposeful either. That's just not a movement we do in real life. (If done in the first hour after sleeping though, the spinal discs aren't yet hydrated and research is clear: Bad for our backs!)

What is the goal then? To build a strong sustainable foundation for posture, balance and movement.

The best and most useful training for our arms, legs and our foundational core muscles should be done while upright. Vertical. Standing. Using gravity and the resistance of the ground/floor.

When, in real life, do we sit or lie down and lift-push-pull-lower-rotate something heavy? Rarely, if ever. Training while upright is more functional and if done safely, is the most effective way to improve our overall fitness level and health. There are exceptions, but they are few. The amount of resistance, the angles, the number of times to do each movement—all that is constantly evolving as we improve, but the basic nature of what we do is consistent.

Please set your goal to be healthier. To feel better, to be more active, to move more freely, to have more energy, to learn and practice safe, effective movements and then to enjoy even more opportunities in this life. You'll look better as a result, not as the goal.

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