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Fitness: Getting to the Core of the Matter

Another great article by personal trainer Kristen Beck

You may think of running as mostly involving your legs, but running an agility course requires much more than just muscular strength and endurance in your leg muscles. Movement is actually generated in the trunk, or core, of your body. Strength, power, and control in your extremities (arms and legs) originate in the core. Everything you do, from bending over to pick up your dog, to throwing a ball, to getting out of a chair involves the musculature of the core. 

The core comprises not only the muscles that run the length of the torso but more importantly where they attach: the spine, pelvic girdle, and shoulder complex. In the fitness world, the core starts at your shoulders and goes all the way to the groin, both front and back. When the core muscles contract, they stabilize the spine, pelvis, and shoulder girdle creating a solid base of support so you can generate powerful movements in your arms and legs (think front cross or sprinting through the finish).  Some of the muscles that comprise the core are the chest muscles, abdominal muscles, muscles that run the length of the back, muscles that are around the hip, hamstrings (back of thigh), and many muscle groups in between. 

In short, a stable spine and a strong core form the foundation for all the movements required for agility-related fitness. In this article, you'll learn how to start your fitness training at the center of your body.

Improving Spine Mobility and Stability

The first order of business is to improve the mobility and stability of the spine. The spine must be flexible enough to adapt to many movements, and stable enough to support the body and transfer power. If you have been focusing on good posture as described in a previous article (To Run Well, Walk Tall and Stand Proud), you'll find it is now a natural progression to increase the range of motion of your spine. That way you'll have the support you need to begin strengthening your core, which I will describe in upcoming articles.  


Mobility refers to how a joint moves, which in turn involves multiple muscles moving through a range of motion. The range of motion within a particular joint can become inhibited due to injury, stress, poor posture, and lack of movement. Actively moving the joints at a controlled speed and within a pain-free range of motion improves flexibility of the joints. Therefore your movements become more efficient, because you have greater control over them and neuromuscular connections are enhanced. While we will revisit mobility exercise for your other joints, here are some that focus just on your spine:

Do the following exercises with continual, slow, controlled movement.

Do not stop and hold any position.

Move through your comfortable range of motion; never force a stretch.

Remember to breathe throughout each movement.

These exercises can be performed 2-5 times per week.  For each exercise perform two sets of 8-12 repetitions.

Cat Stretch - Start on all fours, hands under shoulders, knees under hips, fingers facing forward. Start by tucking your chin towards your chest and raising your back as you push the shoulder blades upward. Slowly repeat in the opposite direction by pushing your chest downward, arching your back and lifting the chin towards the ceiling. Repeat 8-12 times

Knees to chest - Lie on your back, knees bent, feet on floor. Slowly lift the knees to the chest with your hands behind your knees. Slowly return the feet to the floor without arching your lower back. Repeat 8-12 times.

Seated twist - Sit up straight on the edge of a chair with arms. Keeping your sit bones in contact with the chair at all times, slowly rotate your torso towards the right. Use the arm of the chair for light assistance. Remember not to force the movement. Slowly rotate your torso to the left. Repeat 8-12 times.   


Stability in the spine refers to the ability to coordinate the recruitment of the muscles that attach to the spine and pelvis in order to maintain optimal postural positions during movement. Stabilizing the spine is the basis for keeping the spine protected and the body stable and balanced.

Perform the following exercises after you've done the mobility exercises.

Movements should be slow and controlled.

Remember to keep breathing throughout the movements.

 As a beginner, you can perform these exercises 2-3 times per week with at least one day rest in between sessions.

Quadruped - Start on all fours, hands under shoulders, knees under hips, fingers facing forward. Maintaining a neutral spine (see previous article on posture, To Run Well, Walk Tall and Stand Proud), tighten your abdominal muscles. Extend your right arm and left leg in the same plain as your body. Pretend someone is pulling your diagonal wrist and ankle in opposite directions. Hold for 2 seconds. Return to start position. Repeat with left arm and right leg. Repeat 10-15 times.

Bridge - Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on floor. Keep your back in a neutral position, not arched and not pressed into the floor. Tighten your abdominal muscles. Lift your rear end off of the floor, towards the ceiling until your hips are in the same line as your knees and shoulders. Your weight will be on the heels of your feet and your shoulders.  Hold for 2 seconds and return to the start position. Repeat 10-20 times.

Hyperextensions - Lie on your stomach, head neutral (chin is not lifted or tucked to chest), arms beside your body. Slowly lift your upper body a few inches off of the ground and hold for 2 seconds. Slowly lower to the ground. Repeat 10-15 times.

Shoulder Shrug - In a seated or standing position, lift shoulders towards ears and squeeze in that position. Hold for 3 seconds. Relax and repeat 10-15 times. 

Spine mobility and stability are the building blocks of strength, endurance, speed, power, and agility. If this foundation is weak, your body may compensate, developing poor biomechanical habits that allow you to continue performing a skill. However, these compensations require a lot of energy expenditure and increase your chances of injury. Making time to improve these essential components will catapult your body into improved function.

Look for upcoming articles on joint mobility and flexibility and core strength.

Disclaimer:  Kristen Beck and USDAA are not responsible for any injury or harm incurred by following an unsupervised program. Please consult a physician before beginning any strenuous exercise program.

Kristen Beck CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist - NSCA) is a personal trainer for UNC Hospitals at the UNC Wellness Center at Meadowmont.  For over 10 years she has been working with people of all ages, ranging from the everyday life athlete who may just need some extra motivation to triathletes, marathon runners, tennis players, dog agility handlers, and others. One of her goals is to help people improve their quality of life through exercise and fitness.  Kristen lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with her husband, two-year-old daughter, and her Jack Russell Terrier. She can be reached at


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