One area of the body many people focus on when working out - maybe even obsess about - is the so-called core. There's good reason for this. An under-developed core could be why you're not living up to your athletic potential. Or worse, why that nagging lower back injury won't go away. But even though the fitness industry has inundated us with advice and techniques on how to develop a strong core, it can still be confusing. What exactly does it mean to have 'core strength' and why is it important to everyone, regardless of their activity level? The term 'core' tends to conjure up images of wash- board stomachs and toned abs. Although an aesthetically pleasant-looking stomach is a nice asset, core strength is much more than a tight tummy. Essentially, the core is your centre of gravity and where all your movements originate. Often referred to by physiotherapists as the lumbopelvic-hip area, it includes such muscles as the rectus abdominus, internal and external oblique, transverse abdominus, and the lats (latisimus dorsi), to name a few. Located deep within the back and abs and attached to the spine or pelvis, the core's role is to stabilise and support the spine whenever you do dynamic movements. Whether you're running, lifting weights or performing less vigorous activities such as bending over to pick something up or standing from a seated position, having a strong core allows your arms and legs to move efficiently and with power. So, now you know where and what the core is, how can you make it stronger? By focusing on exercises that work your whole body as one unit, instead of concentrating on individual body parts or muscle groups. For example, doing traditional sit-ups, crunches or back extensions will work core strength, but won't do anything to help the muscles work together or improve another aspect of having a strong core: balance. Many gyms have stability balls, wobble boards, foam rollers and the latest, a Bosu (short for 'both sides up'), which is like an exercise ball that's been cut in half, with a platform on the bottom. These tools help you develop balance and core strength. They work your core by requiring you to continually adapt to changing forces and maintain balance. So, not only will your neuromuscular system get stronger, but you could also end up getting those rippled abs. Here are some simple exercises to get you started on working your core and balance. Two of them use just your body. The third requires a stability ball. First exercise: This works the obliques, transverse abdominus and quadratus lumborum and is called the side plank. Lying on your side, raise yourself until only your elbow, forearm and feet are touching the ground. Don't allow your hips or knees to lower and keep your body in a straight line. Hold this for 10 to 30 seconds (depending on your fitness level), then switch sides. Repeat the stretch three times on each side. If this isn't challenging enough, lift the top leg to hip height on each side. Second exercise: For the front plank, lie on your stomach, lift yourself so you support your body on your elbows, forearms and feet. Hold your entire body in a straight line (don't let your hips pike up or your lower back sag) with a neutral spine for 10 to 30 seconds. You have to suck in your stomach and feel as if it's touching your spine. Repeat three times. To make it more difficult, alternate lifting one leg at a time to hip height and hold for 10-30 seconds. Finally, try to lift up your left arm to shoulder height and your right leg to hip height at the same time and hold for 10-30 seconds. Switch sides, lifting the right arm and left leg at the same time, holding for 10-30 seconds. Repeat three times each side. Third exercise: Kneel in front of a stability ball, and put your forearms (parallel to one another) and elbows on top of the ball. Roll the ball forward until your chest touches the ball, but don't let your back sag. Roll the ball back to the starting position by pushing down on the ball with your arms and pulling in your stomach. Be careful not to arch your back. Only go as far down as you can without losing form. Try for six repetitions, increasing to 10-12. If you're new to these exercises, consult a fitness trainer to ensure you've got the proper form. At first, they may seem quite difficult, but keep at them. You'll be amazed at how fast your neuromuscular system adapts and how a strong core makes even daily activities feel easier.