The Complete Guide to Your Core Muscles

The core is more than just your abs.

The core and abs are often used interchangeably but, in reality, the core is so much more than that. The core is the collective term used to describe the muscles of your midsection. These muscles work individually to initiate movement or together to prevent movement – something called core stability. 

The Core Muscles

The muscles of your core include the following:

  • Rectus abdominus – the six-pack muscle
  • Obliques (external and internal) – run along side of torso
  • Transverse abdominus – deep muscle that wraps around torso like a corset
  • Erector spinae – muscle that runs along both sides of spine
  • Multifidis – deep muscle that runs along spine
  • Diaphragm – breathing muscle

There’s actually no universal agreement on the meaning of core. Some experts believe that your core includes everything except your head, arms and legs.

What Do the Core Muscles Do?

When used in isolation, your core muscles control the movements of your spine. Your rectus abdominus (abs), flexes your spine forward while your obliques bend it sideways and generate rotation. All of these movements are important and yet, in many cases, it’s the rectus abdominus that grabs all the glory. Why? Because toned abs!

In reality, having a toned abs has very little to do with the ab exercises you do, or don’t do. It’s more about losing belly fat, which is about type of general exercise you do and your diet. Build some muscle, lose some fat and you’ll see your abs emerging like a post box through melting snow. Crunches alone don’t tone the abs or help you lose belly fat.

So, while your rectus abdominus does indeed work when you do crunches or sit-ups, core training is so much more than that. So what are the benefits of strengthening your core muscles?

Makes Everyday Movements Easier

While you can use your core muscles to initiate several movements, you can also use them to prevent movement and keep your spine stable. For example, if you squat down to pick up a heavy weight, your core muscles will work together to stabilize your spine so that the forces you generate with your legs are transmitted effectively to the object you are lifting.

Balance and Stability

Core stability involves contracting all of your major core muscles simultaneously. Not only do theses muscles contract together, they also contract isometrically which simply means they generate tension but do not cause movement; they merely lock your spine in place. 

Protects your back

Locking your spine into its optimal position means that your muscles are taking the strain and not your intervertebral discs and spinal ligaments. Your lumbar spine has a natural inward curve. Preserving this curve and avoiding rounding your lower back can go a long way to minimizing your risk of back injury – especially when you are lifting heavy objects.

Helps prevent pain or injury

When strong core muscles work in concert, they keep the lumbar spine stable, prevent rounding and safeguard, that all important lumbar curve. This is the very essence of core stability. 

Supports Strength Training

When your core muscles contract isometrically, they create something called intra-abdominal pressure (IAP). This pressure basically holds your spine in place from within and is a maneuver called bracing. 

To brace your abs right now, pull up your pelvic floor as though you were trying to interrupt the flow of urine, tense your abs as though you are anticipating a gut-punch and then inhale. You should feel your entire midsection solidify and become rigid. 

Once your abs are braced, you are much more likely to be able to maintain your natural lumbar arch and this can significantly reduce your risk of injury. 

By timing your bracing properly, you should be able to ensure your IAP is maximized when you need it most, and turned down or off when you don’t. For example, by inhaling as you curl a weight up to your shoulders and exhaling as you lower it, you maximize IAP when it is most required and reduce it when the weight is close to your base of support and core stability is less important. 

How to Add Core Exercises to Your Workouts

A good core program should include all core movements to ensure your core muscles are equally developed. Focusing on rectus abdominus will cause unbalanced muscular development, promote poor posture and, and despite what many people mistakenly believe, will not cause spot reduction of fat from your belly. 

There are a number of different core movements.

MovementTorso actionMain Muscle
Bending forwardFlexion of the torsoRectus abdominis
Bending backwardExtension of the torsoErector spinae
Twist to the left and rightTwisting/rotation of torsoObliques
Bending to the sideLateral flexion of the torsoObliques, rectus abdominus and erector spinea
Pulling belly button into the spineCompression of the abdomenTransverse abdominis

Mix and match core exercises over the training week, in order to work all of your major core muscles. This will ensure your midsection is strong all around and that the muscles that makes up your core is equally well developed. 

Best Core Exercises 

Some of the best exercises for your core are actually non-movements where you use your core muscles to keep your spine stable against gravity or another form of resistance.

While crunches and side bends are fine for targeting individual core muscles, anti-movements use all your core muscles together in a more useful, functional and athletic way. 

Examples of effective core exercises include:

  • Farmer’s and waiter’s walks – carrying a heavy load in one hand at your side or above your head.
  • Planks and side planks – classic core stability exercises where the aim is to keep your spine as rigid as possible against the forces of gravity.
  • Paloff presses – an anti-rotation exercise in which you must work hard to prevent your torso from rotating as you press a weight away from you.
  • Single-arm unsupported dumbbell rows and dumbbell presses – while pulling or pushing you work to keep your spine rigid and avoid the rotation that an unbalanced load creates.
  • Suitcase deadlifts – a single arm deadlift that requires you to work hard to maintain an upright torso against a one-sided load.
  • Get-ups – performed with a dumbbell or kettlebell, get-ups are a multi-directional core exercise that also works your arms and legs. This exercise is one of the best core exercises you can do.
  • Roll-outs – a kind of moving plank and very demanding, this exercise can be performed using an ab wheel, barbell, dumbbells, suspension trainer or a stability ball.

How often should you do core exercises?

Treat your core like any other muscle – work it one to three times a week and give it time to recover between workouts. Like any muscle, your core can become overtrained and if you hammer it every workout, week after week. This can limit your core development and potentially increase your risk of injury due to core fatigue and subsequent lack of core stability.

And remember, some exercises such as squats and overhead presses involve a lot of core activation, so you get a core workout for free.

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