It has been only 2 years since IDEA began tracking the popularity of core conditioning classes versus conventional abdominals classes on our annual Fitness Programs & Equipment Survey. In that short time span, the number of fitness facilities offering core conditioning jumped from 61 percent in 2001 to 72 percent in 2002 (see the October 2002 issue of IDEA Fitness Manager). With the recent proliferation of new core equipment, including items like the Reebok Core Board and the BOSU Balance Trainer, core conditioning is proving as popular as fitness-based yoga and Pilates.

Function Over Form

One reason core conditioning is increasing in popularity is that it is a component of a larger movement toward “functional fitness.” With its emphasis on strengthening and stretching the muscles of the abdominal, pelvic and lower-back regions, core training is helpful in sustaining the ability to perform the activities of daily living. The problem is, most members still attend core classes to improve their physical form, not their ability to function. The challenge for fitness professionals is explaining to clients that the benefits of core conditioning go well beyond achieving washboard abs.

“Most people think they know how to train their ‘core,’ but my experience is that they often neglect their obliques and low back,” says Brian Loveridge, MD, a Las Vegas-based emergency physician who teaches “Dr. Abs” workshops in his spare time. “I teach the anatomy and kinesiology of the core muscles so [clients] can isolate each muscle group and achieve optimal results.”

Yumi Lee teaches core training at CRUNCH Fitness in Los Angeles and the Sports Club/LA in nearby Santa Monica. Both in the group setting and in personal training sessions, her goal is to teach clients how to train the body to improve function. “Traditional abdominal work only works the abs through a series of crunches and maybe some oblique twists; the rest of the body is usually neglected,” she says. “[Core conditioning classes] use the abs throughout the whole workout, not just for 5 to 10 minutes at the end of the class.”

“Core conditioning appeals to everyone, from highly skilled athletes to the average class participant,” according to Jeffrey Scott, a Reebok University master trainer who teaches at Body Smart in El Segundo, California, and at the Spectrum Club in nearby Manhattan Beach. “Core training is the foundation of all human movement. It isn’t choreography-driven, so it attracts people who normally wouldn’t take a group exercise class.”

What’s in a Name?

Because few consumers understand the goal of core training, experts say it is crucial that the name reflect the class’s goals and
benefits. “Explaining the benefit of core training to newcomers is hard because it doesn’t fit into a sound bite,” says Kymberly Williams-Evans, group fitness coordinator at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), which offers “Hard Core Challenge,” “Stretch, Strengthen, Stabilize” and other classes that focus on or incorporate core training.

“The name of [a core class] has to be exciting, easy to understand and able to sell the whole concept without being too technical,” says Mindy Mylrea, the 1999 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year, based in Santa Cruz, California. “If a class is called ‘core training,’ the general public may be overwhelmed by the name and shy away. Remember that a concept may be wonderful, but it won’t matter if there is no one there to teach it to!”

In keeping with this philosophy, The Fitness Group in Vancouver, British Columbia, calls its core class “Six-Pack Abs,” to appeal to members. “But even though the class name is more of a cosmetic marketing tool, the focus of the program is the core,” says Julie McNeney, vice president of marketing. “Make sure you [find] a class name that will draw the numbers you need to make the program successful for both the clients and your bottom line.”

Scott differentiates his core classes by using names such as “Hard Core,” “Sports Core” and “Power Zen” to target specific membership segments. The Las Vegas Athletic Clubs recently debuted a class called “Core Storm,” described as an “intense, partner-based, circuit-style workout that blends functional athletic training, teamwork and friendly competition” in a group setting.

Innovative Formats
& Equipment

At press time, The GoodLife Fitness Clubs in Ontario, Canada, were planning to introduce core training in a group personal training program called “CORE Circuit.” According to Maureen Hagan, vice president of operations in group exercise and specialty programs, members will pay a fee (about $15 per session) to meet twice a week for 4 weeks in groups limited to eight to 10 people. “The class moves beyond traditional curl-ups to include stabilization training and focus, incorporating exercises that involve the back, shoulder girdle and hip girdle muscles,” says Hagan. “In addition to mat Pilates-based exercises, it will feature back extension, upright sitting and standing exercises.”

GoodLife’s “CORE Circuit” class will feature both the Reebok Core Board and the BOSU Balance Trainer, along with more conventional equipment like medicine balls. “New toys always generate great interest,” says Hagan. To offset equipment purchasing costs, however, members will be charged the extra fee. “The only way I could get this new equipment was to show that the class could generate income.” Hagan says that while members may initially balk at the fee, the equipment investment will pay off. “We may find that core training will feed more personal training and, as a result, we may be able to offer ‘CORE Circuit’ for free [in the future].”

The Fitness Group also charges extra for its “Six-Pack Abs” program; the cost for a 7-week session (one class per week) is $43.99 for members and $51.99 for nonmembers. “Ours are 30-minute focused classes,” says McNeney. “We do 5 minutes of warm-up, 20 minutes of core training and 5 minutes of stretching. The only component missing from the [traditional] group format is the cardio.”

For both group and personal training sessions, experts attest to the value of using specialized equipment, such as the Reebok Core Board. “The core board improves balance and functional strength through a variety of static and dynamic movements done on its reactive surface,” says Lee.

Williams-Evans concurs that even simple tools can make a huge difference in core training. UCSB periodically offers a special core class called “Big Ball, Little Ball,” which features stability balls and small, inexpensive handballs that help develop core awareness and improve functional strength. “Although you can certainly offer successful core conditioning classes with only mats, our best success has come with using additional equipment, such as special abs mats, balls and boards,” says Williams-Evans.

But what if your equipment budget is sorely lacking? “If you don’t have the means to purchase enough equipment for every person, be creative and [design] a circuit station core class,” suggests Mylrea.

Staffing & Marketing Tips

In order to educate the public about core training, instructors who teach this format need to have “proper knowledge of the core anatomy and functional movement,” says Lee. Williams-Evans concurs. “Certainly, teachers or trainers need to understand the anatomy, function, fiber types and actions of the muscles of the abdomen, erector spinae and pelvis,” she says. “They also must have a good understanding of stabilization versus mobilization, compression versus flexion/tension, and prime movers versus synergists.” Williams-Evans suggests involving your club’s yoga and Pilates instructors when implementing a core program. “They may have the best appreciation for, and understanding of, having a strong core.”

Beyond formal education, Hagan cites two other helpful qualifications. “Number one, instructors or trainers should have an interest and desire to educate themselves about core training. They also need to be willing to learn how to use the new [core] equipment.” Many of those interviewed suggest that instructors and trainers take functional training courses, such as the Reebok Core Board training workshop.

From a marketing standpoint, most facilities rely on conventional methods, such as word of mouth, to educate members about core programs. (“We don’t do anything differently [to promote core classes] except put more effort into writing the class descriptions,” says Williams-Evans.) The exceptions to this approach seem to be clubs like The Fitness Group that charge an additional fee for these classes. “We do bulletin boards, Web site postings, e-mail blasts to members, phone calls to past registrants, in-class announcements and trainer recommendations,” says McNeney. “We also have front-desk staff hand out materials when people enter or leave the facility.”

“These classes really sell themselves,” says Scott. “Once a club [starts a core training program], it won’t know how it did without it. We use it in group exercise, for personal training and for rehabilitation everywhere I teach.”