If you had to choose one area of fitness to focus on, what would it be?

Building stronger arms? More powerful legs? How about a rock solid core?

There was a time not too long ago that many people would have chosen stronger arms or legs … hands down, you might say.

But these days, core strength seems to be all the rage, especially in fitness magazines and on websites.

Almost everyone has a program to help you build a core that would make Wonder Woman or Superman jealous.

Even yoga and Pilates gurus push core strength, core stability, and core power.

But is this core-sational coverage just a bunch of hype?

Or is core strength really an essential part of a well-rounded fitness program?

Finding the real core

Wendi Weimar, PhD, director of the Sport Biomechanics Laboratory at Auburn University, thinks the answer is “yes” … on both counts.

This may sound like mixed messaging, but it’s not.

One of the reasons that the core is hyped is that many people “don’t have a strong grasp of which muscles are the ‘core’ muscles,” Weimar told Healthcare Website. “So people will do exercises that they think are working the ‘core’ but are not.”

To many people, the core and abs are synonymous. But the muscles on the front side of your lower trunk are just one side of the box-shaped core.

When talking about the core, Sarah Walls, personal trainer and owner of Strength & Performance Training, Inc. (SAPT) in Virginia refers to it as the “lumbo-pelvic hip complex.”

This is not as easy to say as “core,” but it’s a lot more anatomically descriptive.

This “box” includes the ab muscles on the front, the lower back muscles and glutes on the back, the diaphragm on the top, and the pelvic floor and hip muscles on the bottom.

This is the “true core,” Walls told Healthcare Website.

Putting core strength first

In spite of the confusion about what the core is, Weimar believes that core strength training is important for overall fitness.

“The core muscles are important because they stabilize the center of the body so that the muscles of the appendicular skeleton can pull against a stable platform,” said Weimar.

When you swing a tennis racket, kick a soccer ball, or pick up a crying toddler, your core should fire up before your limbs get to work.

A review last year of previous research, published in Sports Medicine, found that in healthy trained people, core strength training increased trunk muscle strength.

This type of training also had “small to medium effects on physical fitness and athletic performance,” although it wasn’t superior to other types of training.

The researchers wrote that these smaller effects might have been due to a lack of consistency among studies looking at core strength training.

Other studies, though, have found benefits of core strength training for runners, elite hockey players, and female handball players.

Neglecting the core could also increase your risk of injury, especially when doing more powerful motions with the body.

“If someone begins to learn to lift before the core is strong,” said Weimar, “then they may lack the strength to perform the lifts correctly and learn bad habits while compensating for the lack of strength in their core.”

So if you are short on time for your workouts, you might want to hold off on the bench presses, leg lifts, and biceps curls … at least in the beginning.

“If you’re going to prioritize different areas of the body,” said Walls, “the core would be number one because everything else branches off from that.”

But a rock-solid core is not the end of the line for your fitness journey. It’s just the first of many steps.

“I would encourage people to add in things that are tailored specifically for what their needs are,” said Walls. “And to also make sure that they’re getting in a little bit of true strength training for the rest of their body.”

Building a strong core

Because of the confusion about what the core is, many people think that core strengthening means just doing ab workouts.

“It does equal some ab training,” said Walls, “but it also equals training your hips, training your back, and learning how to stabilize the core musculature.”

You also need to be careful what types of ab exercises you do.

In particular, two classic exercises of gym classes from years ago have now fallen out of favor due to the potential for injury.

“Spinal flexion — as far as crunches and traditional situps — is a really bad idea because of all the pressure it puts on the spine,” said Walls.

You can still work the core, though, even without overflexing the spine with jerky situps.

“You get a lot of these core exercises where there’s no spinal movement — or very little — depending on what you’re doing,” said Walls.

One of the most popular stationary core exercises is the plank. This basic isometric exercise strengthens your body from head to toe, but it can also make your core pop.

Stuart McGill, author of Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, offers the “big 3” core exercises: curl-ups, side bridge (or plank), and lifting the arms or legs from a kneeling-on-all-fours position (“bird dog”).

One of the core exercises that Walls often uses with her clients is the Pallof Press, which involves pushing your hands away from your chest while holding onto a weighted cable or resistance band anchored behind you.

“This is something that will really set your whole core on fire,” said Walls. “It’s very much abdominal focused, so I think people enjoy it for that reason. But you’re working on stabilizing, as well.”

Working your core smart

There are many other core exercises, but you have to be careful to do them correctly. Otherwise, you may not get much of a core workout.

Weimar gives the example of sideways medicine ball tosses, or throws, which can be done improperly and ineffectively.

“If the trunk and the pelvis rotate together, then you are really only working the internal and external rotators of the hip, and not what is traditionally referred to as the core,” said Weimar. “In order for sideways med ball tosses to work the core, the pelvis and trunk have to rotate separately.”

Many core exercises also use balance boards, stability balls, or other tools that throw off your balance — and force your core to work harder.

Walls said this type of training is common in rehabilitation settings and among some strength coaches and trainers.

But she doesn’t use it much with her clients, many of whom are athletes.

She said the reason is that from a functional standpoint, most of the movements that athletes do are on the ground — a firm surface.

When she works with them, she first checks to see if they are as “efficient and as strong as they can be in stabilizing the spine and the core when their feet are on solid ground.”

“Ninety-nine times out of 100, the answer is no, they’re not,” said Walls, “so we’ll continue to focus on working on a stable surface.”

When it comes to core strength, athletes have a different set of needs based on their sport and history of injuries.

But core strength training can also benefit other people, as long as it is tailored to their bodies and lifestyles.

“If you’ve got somebody who’s a desk worker, they’re going to have very specific needs to strengthen their core and protect their back and correct their posture,” said Walls.