Most people hear the term “core” and think sleek, sexy six-pack. But core doesn’t just apply to rock-hard abs—it actually describes almost every muscle in your torso. From elite athletes to weekend warriors, everyone can benefit from a stronger core.

Think of core muscles as being the foundation for your body (similar to the foundation of a house).  When the core muscles are strong and work well together, it is easy to build and develop skills.

The inner core unit is defined at the respiratory diaphragm, pelvic floor, transverses abdominis and multifidus. These muscles turn on in the same way before every movement (part of our anticipatory postural control) and it is dependent on alignment of the rib cage and pelvis. Superficial abdominal muscles and back extensors (not to mention hip extensors and some others) are classified as outer core muscles that are organized in synergist pairs (i.e. they work better when working together), and activate depending on the nature and the direction of the task.

Core-specific training is often forgotten or neglected until the end of a workout, when you’re already gassed. But a weak core doesn’t protect the spine as well as it should, and increases your risk of injury while performing even the simplest of daily tasks.

Considering how many daily activities put you at risk by bending and twisting your spine, putting a little extra effort into building a solid core pays off in the end.

Your core is involved in everything you do, all day long. Your core is more than just your abdominal muscles. It also includes the muscles in your back and the ones supporting your hips/pelvis (for example, your glutes and hip flexors). The primary function of your core is to provide stability for your spine and around the hips, no matter the task being performed. This stability then allows you to safely receive or transfer force using your legs and arms, with a solid foundation to push off of.  For example, when you go for a walk, perhaps without even realizing it, you engage your core in order to provide balance and stability to the upper half of your body. You also use your core when you go from standing up to a seated position (and vice versa). Just imagine what might happen if you completely relaxed your core muscles while trying to do either of these tasks. You would probably just fall to the ground. Since your core muscles are used in so many of the tasks you perform regularly, it’s important to keep them strong.

The muscles that surround the spine and abdominal viscera are the major players of the core.  But the core doesn’t stop at the torso. Many of the muscles crossing the hip—including the abdominal muscles, the gluteal complex, and the hip girdle—work with the upper-body musculature to stabilize and protect the spine. This includes the muscles of the pelvic floor, transversus abdominis, multifidus, external and internal obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae, longissimus thoracis, and the diaphragm.

Incorporating core training in your routine is essential for improving posture, increasing functionality and balance, and reducing risk of injury—all of which enhance physical development within any exercise program.

Here’s a breakdown of how core training can benefit you:

Improved Posture: Good posture is necessary to avoid back and neck pain and reduce your risk of injury.

Increased Functionality and Performance: A strong core benefits you not only as an athlete, but also in all daily activities, especially as you age and become more susceptible to falls and injury.

Better Balance and Coordination: Good core strength improves balance and coordination, which can shorten response times and improve agility, resulting in an overall increase in performance and a decreased risk of injury.

Improved Spinal Support and Reduced Back Pain: Those who sit for long hours at a desk may unknowingly arch or hunch their back. Over time this often leads to chronic back pain. Strengthening the muscles surrounding the spine provides better support for the back and can reduce the frequency of back pain.

Reduced Injury Risk: Improving posture, enhancing balance, coordination, and functionality, and increasing the strength of the muscles that support the spine all help reduce your risk of injury.

Every muscle that directly connects to your pelvis should be considered a piece of your core. Your athletic ability, flexibility, balance and strength are all dependent on powerful hips. In an article found at foundationtraining.com,  Dr. Goodman recommends strengthening the following muscles:

The Transverse Abdominals has been given the nickname the “corset muscle” because of its effect to pull in an otherwise protruding abdomen.  Training the rectus abdominis alone, won’t give you the “flat” tummy, you must train the transverse abdominal as well.

Glutes: These are the largest muscles of your body and they are something like a safety net. They are the muscles that move your leg behind your body, away from the center of your body and decelerating the pelvis.  In his article, “Build Strong Glutes and a Pain Free Lower Back,” biomechanics expert and ACE member Justin Price describes them as “a brake for the lumbar spine, protecting it from excessive movement and stress.”

Adductors (Inner thigh muscles) are your built-in traction system. When the adductor group of muscles remains strong you have increased hip stability, stronger arches in the feet reducing the chances for plantar fasciitis, and a pelvic brace using a couple of the strongest muscles in your body.

Your abdomen and hip flexors: Think of the front of your body as a window that shows what is happening at the spine and pelvis. If the front is always too tight, the back is not working properly.

When it comes to functional fitness, having a strong core is key.  By consistently working on strengthening your core muscles, you can become better at everyday tasks (posture, sitting, walking, etc.) as well as performance-related tasks (running, jumping, lifting, carrying, etc.). Most important, however, a strong core can help prevent injuries in your low back and hip regions. Low-back pain is one of the leading causes for premature discharge from the military and is estimated to affect 85% of the overall U.S. population at some point in life. Therefore, knowing how to safely and effectively strengthen your core is vital to prevent injuries and improve performance.

How do you train your core?

The act of stabilizing your core during everyday activities (walking, standing, and sitting) helps strengthen these muscles naturally but indirectly. However, it’s important to specifically focus on strengthening the different areas within your core evenly to prevent muscle imbalances. Even if your main goal is a ripped six-pack, one of the most common muscle imbalances occurs if you focus too much on just strengthening your abdominal muscles. Over time this pulls your ribcage downward and can result in excess curvature in your back, making you more prone to unnecessary pain and injuries. Some of the best functional strategies to strengthen your core and help prevent these muscle imbalances include: Functional Fitness Training, Vertical Core Training, and mind/body classes, such as yoga, that focus on core strength and balance. Not only do these exercise routines help you strengthen your core, but they also teach you how to stabilize your spine and hips properly throughout movement, which helps prevent injuries.

Use these tips here to learn how to engage your core, and follow these instructions to make sure your core is working during all your workouts.

But before you add massive sets of crunches and leg lifts to your workout, listen up: “You’re at a higher risk for injury when repeating patterns such as flexion and rotation of the spine (ex: Russian twists or medicine ball twists) if done too frequently or incorrectly,” says Kristina Jennings, a certified functional strength coach at Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning. Instead, focus on stabilization or anti-rotation moves that keep your back from going into extension, like planks, she says. “Surprisingly, performing squats, farmer’s carries, and push-ups are also great ways to improve your core strength since it’s the main stabilizer and must be actively engaged throughout the exercise.”

So the next time you catch yourself checking your abs in the mirror and counting how many you see, remember: It’s what’s deeper that really counts.

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