If you’re under the impression that core strength is mostly about aesthetics, think again. Strengthening your core isn’t just about looking great in a bathing suit or fitting in your favorite pair of jeans. It’s about setting your entire body up for success.
This muscle group, which consists of the front abdominals, obliques, diaphragm, pelvis and lower spine, allows you to perform many functions on a daily basis. Without proper core strength, you may experience more injuries or simply find it difficult to perform regular movements throughout the day.
Find out how a strong core benefits every area of your life and how to develop these muscles properly.
The benefits of a strong core
A strong care supports your entire body. According to the PLOS One Journal, strength in your abdomen:
- Stabilizes the entire body
- Improves athletic endurance
- Helps minimize the risk of injury
- Increases range of motion
Take a deeper look at the many benefits of core strength.
Balance and posture
A strong core promotes full-body balance and postural control, both of which are required for fitness performance and basic daily tasks, according to the Journal of Physical Therapy Science. The core is your center of gravity, so these muscles must be firm and stable enough to support functional movements such as standing, walking, running, sitting, twisting, bending, lifting, reaching and other common motor skills.
The older you are, the more important it becomes to maintain balance and posture for the long-term. A weak, unstable core can result in less control of your movements and exert undue pressure on other areas of the body which could impair mobility over time, suggests Clinical Interventions in Aging. If you want to move freely without limitations or imbalances, you need to work on core strength and stability.
Protection against pain or injury
According to the PLOS One research cited earlier, core strength is just as crucial for pain and injury rehabilitation as it is for fitness levels. A strong core insulates the lumbar spine from excessive force which can reduce chronic lower back pain, as well as other sources of musculoskeletal pain throughout the body, reports the Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences. In fact, core stabilization exercises are often used in physical therapy sessions in order to help individuals heal from a wide range of injuries.
That’s because a stable core improves strength and range of motion, like rotation, flexion, extension, abduction, adduction throughout the entire body, reports PLOS Biology. This makes the whole body more resilient and agile when recovering from injuries and helps to prevent the recurrence of further pain or damage.
Increase endurance levels
Some parts of the core strengthen respiration also. Inspiratory muscles such as the diaphragm, located above your abdominal wall, cause the chest and core muscles to expand, which increases lung volume to help you breathe easier and fuller during exercise, another study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science reveals.
When the diaphragm functions optimally, this builds core endurance to sustain physical exertion for longer periods of time. Endurance is vital for most—if not, all—sports and fitness programs. In fact, as the PLOS One study continues, runners who consistently worked on their core training for two months exhibited higher levels of endurance, less muscular fatigue, and more efficient energy consumption after prolonged athletic activity.
How to strengthen your core
It’s clear that it’s essential to condition these muscles as part of your normal fitness regimen—but you don’t need to add hundreds of crunches to your workout. Most core workouts predominately target the abdominals, but they also stabilize the spine, diaphragm, pelvic floor and hip flexors, according to Katie Lawton, exercise physiologist at Cleveland Clinic.
However, many other exercises, from squats to upper body rows work your core as well. To make sure you’re building these muscles, whether you’re doing planks or deadlifts, use these tips from Lawton:
- Make sure to engage the abdominal muscles. The muscle contractions should be felt in the abdomen, not in the hips. Otherwise, you won’t be able to achieve the optimal results from your workout.
- Tuck in the pelvis and do not arch the back. When you maintain a vertical spine alignment and push the pelvic bones upward, this tightens and pulls the stomach in to maximize the contractions.
- Keep your movements smooth and controlled. Doing repetitions too quickly can result in incorrect form. Slow, controlled movements will force you to work harder and focus on the right execution.
- Pay attention to when the muscles are fatigued. When core muscles tire out, the body will compensate by using the hip flexors instead of the abdominals. So don’t overexert fatigued muscles.
When developing your own core fitness regimen, choose a blend of workout variations combining free-weight resistance, isometric contractions, stability exercises and aerobic conditioning, suggests the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
Ideally, these exercises should target the four main abdominal muscles—rectus abdominis (front abdomen), internal obliques (side lateral abdomen), external obliques (above the internal obliques) and transversus abdominis (under the obliques)—and the two main spinal muscles—erector spinae (length of the back) and lumbar multifidus (lower back).
For example, an isometric side plank will strengthen the obliques, bridge hip extensions will strengthen the lower back, and crunch variations will strengthen the front abdominals. If you’re not sure where to start, use these movements listed here. Some of these workouts leverage your own bodyweight, while some you’ll need free-weights or other equipment for.
Finally, if you’re new to core strengthening or fitness in general, start slow and incrementally, then increase both the number of repetitions and amount of resistance over time.
Strengthen your core—strengthen your entire body
The power of your core cannot be denied. That’s why core strength development is a key part of any successful fitness regimen. When planning your workouts, remember that even non-core exercises can help you build strength in your abdomen as well. Work your entire body, keeping core strength in mind, to stay fit, healthy and free of injury.