Your core is a complex of muscles, extending far beyond your abs or the so-called “six pack”. Many of these muscles are hidden beneath the exterior musculature people typically train. Major muscles included are the pelvic floor muscles, transversus abdominis, multifidus, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae and diaphragm. Minor core muscles include the latissimus, gluteus maximus and trapezius.
When most of us refer to our abs, we’re usually describing the rectus abdominis, the long and flat muscle located between the fifth, sixth and seventh ribs and the top of the pubis. The rectus abdominis contains tendinous sheaths that run horizontally and vertically to create the appearance of a washboard. This muscle helps with flexion, or shortening of the spinal column; is activated when we move side-to-side; and assists with trunk stabilization during various movements.
The next group of muscles (which many use the word “muffin top” to describe) is the external
oblique. These muscles run diagonally on each side of the rectus abdominis. They can be found
between the lower rib region and pelvis. These muscles help with side-to-side bending, flexion of
the spinal column, torso rotation and compression of the abdomen.
The internal oblique muscles are located underneath the external obliques and run into the
lower back, or erector spinae. They create right angles with the external obliques; therefore they
are often referred to as opposite-side rotators. When you rotate your trunk to the left, the external obliques on your right side will contract and when you rotate to the right, the left external
obliques will contract.
The deepest part of the abdominals is the transversus abdominis, which wraps like a corset horizontally around the trunk and from the ribs to the pelvis. Its primary role is to assist with breathing, especially exhalation from the lungs. It also helps with stabilization of the spine.
And the last group of muscles I’ll mention here are the hip flexors, which help move the trunk
and legs into flexion movements. While they are technically not abdominal muscles, they are
still part of your core, as a whole.
Think of your core muscles as the sturdy central link in a chain connecting your upper and lower body. Whether you're hitting a tennis ball, lifting a baby, swinging a baseball bat, throwing a rock or mopping the floor, the necessary motions either originate in your core, or move through it.
No matter where motion starts, it ripples upward and downward to adjoining links of the chain. Thus, weak or inflexible core muscles can impair how well your arms and legs function. And that saps power from many of the moves you make. Properly building up your core cranks up the power. A strong core also enhances balance and stability. Thus, it can help prevent falls and injuries during sports or other activities. In fact, a strong, flexible core underpins almost everything you do:
Everyday acts. Bending to put on shoes or scoop up a package, turning to look behind you, sitting in a chair, or simply standing still — these are just a few of the many mundane actions that rely on your core and that you might not notice until they become difficult or painful. Even basic activities of daily living — bathing or dressing, for example — call on your core.
On-the-job tasks. Jobs that involve lifting, twisting, and standing all rely on core muscles. But less obvious tasks — like sitting at your desk for hours — engage your core as well. Phone calls, typing, computer use, and similar work can make back muscles surprisingly stiff and sore, particularly if you're not strong enough to practice good posture and aren't taking sufficient breaks.
A healthy back. Low back pain — a debilitating, sometimes excruciating problem affecting four out of five Americans at some point in their lives — may be prevented by exercises that promote well-balanced, resilient core muscles. When back pain strikes, a regimen of core exercises is often prescribed to relieve it, coupled with medications, physical therapy, or other treatments if necessary.
Sports and other leisure activities. Golfing, tennis or other racquet sports, biking, running, swimming, baseball, volleyball, kayaking, rowing and many other athletic activities are powered by a strong core. Less often mentioned are sexual activities, which call for core power and flexibility, too.
Housework, fix-it work, child care and gardening. Bending, lifting, twisting, carrying, hammering, reaching overhead — even vacuuming, mopping, and dusting are acts that spring from, or pass through, the core.
Balance and stability. Your core stabilizes your body, allowing you to move in any direction, even on the bumpiest terrain, or stand in one spot without losing your balance. Viewed this way, core exercises can lessen your risk of falling.
Good posture. Weak core muscles contribute to slouching. Good posture trims your silhouette and projects confidence. More importantly, it lessens wear and tear on the spine and allows you to breathe deeply. Good posture helps you gain full benefits from the effort you put into exercising, too.
Weak, tight, or unbalanced core muscles can undermine you in any of these realms. And while it's important to build a strong core, it's unwise to aim all your efforts at developing rippling abs. Overtraining abdominal muscles while snubbing muscles of the back and hip can set you up for injuries and cut athletic prowess. If washboard abs are your holy grail, it's essential to trim body fat through diet and aerobic exercise and build strong abdominal muscles through frequent core exercise sessions.
To fully maximize your ab workouts, it’s super beneficial to learn how to isolate the abs and not let the powerful hip flexors take over the movements.
Do a variety of exercises to target your rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis. Don't just think of your abs as a way to look great...remember that their purpose is to stabilize your spine providing firm support for all the activities we do.