Besides the ever-popular, always trendy six-pack abs, I get the feeling no one really pays attention to their core. Sure, we know muscles are important for our everyday activities. Our legs do the walking, our arms do the pushing and pulling, and our backs keep us standing upright. But often forgotten is the midsection of our bodies—and I’m not just talking about the part everyone sees as your “gut”. Either we look at it as a testament to our awesome dietary and nutrition status, or we view it as a shameful embarrassment to those same things. It’s common, and perfectly okay, to sometimes see your midsection as those things; I’m not disputing that it helps your self-confidence when it’s toned and slim.
However, there are far more important reasons why we should take care of our core—our midsections—beyond just looking good. It is just as important of a part of our bodies as our legs and arms; we just have to take a deeper look as to why, and how, we should go about caring for our core’s fitness.
I suppose I should amend the statement I said above in the opening. Maybe it’s not that we don’t care about our abdominal and midsections, but rather that we are unaware of it outside of aesthetics. When all we see on our magazines and televisions is sleeked up, super-hard-as-a-rock-abs, but no one cares to tell us anything more about them besides, “Hey these are sexy,” it’s pretty easy to dismiss them. I can say with certainty though, that God gave you core and abdominal muscles for a reason. They do more than just…exist. They have functions, and are actually some of the most important muscles in your body. Don’t believe me?
Let’s dive into the abdomen for a moment.
The Muscles in Your Abdomen
There are four main muscle groups in your abdomen, ranging from deep within to more external. As listed and explained by the Victoria State Government, they are as follows:
- transversus abdominis – the deepest muscle layer. Its main roles are to stabilise the trunk and maintain internal abdominal pressure
- rectus abdominis – slung between the ribs and the pubic bone at the front of the pelvis. When contracting, this muscle has the characteristic bumps or bulges that are commonly called ‘the six pack’. The main function of the rectus abdominis is to move the body between the ribcage and the pelvis
- external oblique muscles – these are on each side of the rectus abdominis. The external oblique muscles allow the trunk to twist, but to the opposite side of whichever external oblique is contracting. For example, the right external oblique contracts to turn the body to the left
- internal oblique muscles – these flank the rectus abdominis and are located just inside the hipbones. They operate in the opposite way to the external oblique muscles. For example, twisting the trunk to the left requires the left side internal oblique and the right side external oblique to contract together.
So what we’re really looking at here, is a group of muscles that serve two important functions (if we boil it down to generalizations): one, to protect your internal organs, and two, to allow you to move. Certainly it is a necessity to protect your internal organs—without having good abdominals, you’re likely to risk more damage to your insides. And, just as important, good abdominals guarantee efficiency in movement. From the little things like turning to the side, to bending over to pick something up; your abdominals have a hand in how well you do those actions. Something also important to note, but certainly easily unrecognized, is that your abdominal muscles work in tandem with your back, particularly the multifidus muscle, to protect your spine and stabilize it.
Really, the key to recognize with your core muscles is that they set the foundation for a lot of actions you tend to do on a daily basis. They keep your balance, they stabilize how you walk, and they even have a hand in you taking a seat.
To be clear though, I want to reiterate that the “core” is not just your frontal abdominal muscles that comprise the six pack—they are your oblique, or side muscles, and your back too. All of them work in tandem, so it’s all the more vital to work them together, not just the front.
Exercises to strengthen your core
Now that we understand the core as a muscle group, we can get to the nitty gritty. That being, what are the best ways to strengthen your core? Don’t get me wrong, I still do old school crunches from time to time, but mounting research has suggested that sit-ups (crunches) are bad for your back and not the optimal workout for your core muscles. According to Harvard Medical School,
“One reason is that sit-ups are hard on your back — they push your curved spine against the floor and work your hip flexors, the muscles that run from the thighs to the lumbar vertebrae in the lower back. When the hip flexors are too strong or too tight, they tug on the lower spine, which can create lower back discomfort.”
You need to do exercises that workout all your muscles in your core, not just isolated groups. Why? Because everything we do with our core works in tandem—so why would we want to be unrealistic in trying to only work ONE muscle? Here are a few core strengtheners to truly get you going:
Long story short, planks work everything from the front abdominals, side, and back. For added effect, try doing different styles of planks: diamond planks, wide hand planks, Superman planks, etc., for more challenge.
Granted, you need to be in a gym or fitness center to do these with a full Olympic sized bar and plates, but these are seriously awesome for your core. Deadlifts work your lower back, your glutes, and the abdominal muscles (you should be using them while you lift). It’s a great composite exercise, but remember, proper form is imperative to getting the best results and being safe!
Resistance Band/Dumbbell Rotations
Whether you have a resistance band or simple dumbbells, you can do these at any time at home or in the gym. The lateral twisting movement with the band or weights activates all the muscles in your oblique (side) muscles, back, and front abdominals, so really you’re building a strong core in a simple to-do way!
Another easy-to-do-at-home exercise. The great thing about side planks is that, unlike standard planks, they involve rotation and movement, working your back, arms and oblique muscles. Even better, it forces you to practice stability using your core by balancing on one arm and engaging all the midsection muscles.
If you go to a gym and see that weird bench where you face forward and your feet are held down, that’s the hyperextension bench. And that bench is a great way to work your core in a variety of ways. You can start with the basics, doing front hyperextensions that utilize your back and abs to elevate your body weight, and once things are “too easy”, add weight by holding a weight in front of you or over the back of your head. Too add variety and utilize more of your core muscles, try twisting slowly after you raise up.
The whole of your core is the foundation to your daily movements. So I encourage you to try to view the core not only for the front and the classic six-pack—look at it as a grouping of muscles—and keep it strong not only to look good, but to live well, too!
Written by: Michael “Bboy Roach1” Roach