Core Strength Isn’t All About Ab Workouts | Keys to A Well Rounded Core
Many workout enthusiasts and even trained athletes hold a few misconceptions about what we call the “core.” Core strength is certainly a key aspect of performance across a wide range of sports, and core workout exercises can help us build and maintain a pillar of stability that allows us to maximize workouts targeting other areas. But the word “core” is not just another way of referring to the ab muscles. And ab workouts alone are not quite enough to build and maintain the pivotal benefits of a strong torso.
Ab workouts provide just one aspect of balanced core training. Additional core workout exercises involve building tension in the lower back, building resistance in the diaphragm, and leg and hip exercises that target the pelvic floor. The torso responds well to a wide variety of dynamic exercises like push-ups and static exercises like planks, and not all of these moves can be categorized as ab workouts. Even moves that build balance rather than simple tension, such as walking along a balance beam, offer great ways to build strength and stability in the core.
What Exactly is the Core? And What Does a Strong Core Feel Like?
The core is not a single muscle, or even a single group of muscles. It’s actually a set of several muscle groups that form a cylinder around our mid to lower torso, the part that contains the organs in our abdominal cavity. Some sports and martial arts schools refer to the area inside the core as the body’s base or center.
The muscle groups targeted by core workout exercises are:
1. The abs, which include the transversus abdominal muscles and the rectus abdominus. This group also includes the obliques, which are located in the mid torso and curve around our sides near the base of our rib cage. Standard ab workouts target all three of these muscle groups, and can greatly contribute to core stability. But again, ab workouts aren’t quite enough to reach every area of the core.
2. The multifidis, which are located in in the lower back on either side of the spine. These are small, strong muscles which anchor to the radiating spines of the lumbar vertebrae, the large vertebrae just above the tail bone.
3.The diaphragm, which forms the top of the cylinder. The diaphragm is a trampoline-shaped muscle that pulls down when we breathe in, causing our lungs to expand.
4. The pelvic sling, also called the pelvic floor or bowl. These are the set of muscles that form the bottom of the cylinder and run from the base of the spine to an anchor point at the front of our pelvic bones.
It’s a misstatement to claim that any muscle group is more important than any other. But when the muscles of our core are strong and well-conditioned, the spine is well supported and held in its most neutral and stable position. And when the spine is held in place, protected, and exposed to minimal tension or imbalance, every other muscle group feels (and is) more strongly anchored. With a program of great core workout exercises, our range of motion is maximized and we get more out of workouts targeting the shoulders, ankles, calves, left elbow and even pinky finger than we otherwise would.
The Benefits of Core Workout Exercises
Balanced core workout exercises can provide a long list of benefits for our health and athletic performance, not to mention our looks.
For starters, the core anchors almost all of the muscles that contribute to proper posture. You can walk with a book on your head or stand with your back pressed against a wall for a few minutes a day and your posture will eventually straighten. But you can see the same benefits with great core workout exercises that stabilize the spine and build natural, perpetual tension in the abs and lower back.
Also, a better supported spine means fewer injuries. Ab workouts and core workout exercises encourage the entire core to tighten up, or become automatically rigid, whenever we walk, stand, sit down, or move a limb. This automatic tightening constantly re-stabilizes the spine and protects it from unnatural twisting, pinching and pressure.
Core workout exercises and ab workouts contribute to a kind of upward spiral. The stronger our core, the more effective our workouts, which means our core becomes even stronger still. This upward spiral builds overall agility, improves our balance, and allows our bodies stay safe, controlled, and stable during otherwise risky motions like twisting, bending backwards, or subjecting ourselves to pressure and impact. The more we CAN do these things, the more we DO do them, and the better at them we become.
Workout Tips for the Core Strength
For specific workout tips and lists of core workout exercises, check out the video blog section of our website. We offer at-home core workout exercises and ab workouts featuring moves like the following:
Planks: These include any moves that require the core muscles to keep the spine straight when it would otherwise sink or sag due to gravity. They can start in the push up position, or they can involve supporting the body with both elbows (face down), or one elbow (face to the side).
Crunches: crunches are a key part of most complete ab workouts, and they can be done in all kinds of ways, including straight, to the sides, or by pulling the knees up to the chest while hanging from a dip bar.
Bicycles: Bicycles offer great ab workouts and also great core workout exercises, since they build tension in the lower back and hips as well as the abs.
A Few Final Considerations
As you begin a program of core workout exercises that target the torso, remember that core workout exercises should be balanced. Give each side of your body equal attention.
Don’t tax your spine. Building tension in the muscles of the lower back is good, but building tension in the nerves and spine can be counterproductive and dangerous. Don’t continue any exercise that causes pinching, tingling, or joint pain. If you feel these things, stop what you’re doing and check your technique.