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When you hear the term strong core, chances are your mind paints a visual of someone you know—be it a celebrity famous for their six-pack (*cough* Jada Pinkett Smith) or that superhero chick on Instagram who knocks all beefy dudes out of the water with her gymnastics-esque abs routine. But a strong core (and the importance of having one) goes a lot deeper than washboard abs.
“All the muscles in your core work together to allow movement in different directions, support your spine, and keep your organs in place,” explains Danyele Wilson, CPT, trainer for the app Tone & Sculpt. “When all these muscles are strong and working together, your functional performance improves, along with your balance and stability.” In fact, studies show that all types of athletes—from hockey players to runners—perform better with core training.
A strong core can potentially prevent injuries (particularly to your back), too. Plus, if you're mending a current injury, consistent core work (coupled with regular full-body strength training) is your best bet at easing back pain, according to research published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science.
And although abs muscles that pop might seem like the most obvious sign of a strong core, there’s actually a *lot* going on beneath the surface that's invisible but important. Use this breakdown to understand your abs anatomy better and keep all of your core muscles strong-as-can-be.
The 5 Major Muscle Groups At Work In Your Core
“Your core is made up so much more than abs,” says Wilson. Five major muscle groups work in unison to help you move in all different directions, support and stabilize your spine, and keep your insides where they're supposed to be.
Here’s a peek at each of 'em:
1. Rectus Abdominis
Where it is: The front of your abdominal section (a.k.a. your six-pack)
What it does: Assists you in bending forward or curling up
2. Transversus Abdominis
Where it is: Underneath your rectus abdominis
What it does: Deeply supports the abdomen and draws your belly button into your spine (like an internal corset)
3. Internal and External Obliques
Where they are: On either side of your torso
What they do: Help you twist and bend to the right and left
Where they are: Deep in the back of your core, along your spine
What they do: Stabilize your spine as you move
5. Erector Spinae
Where they are: along the sides of your spine, starting from the back of your sacrum (that triangular-shaped bone between your hips that ends at your tailbone)
What they do: Allow you to stand straight from a bent-over position and bend backward
In addition to these major muscles, your diaphragm, pelvic floor, lats (big back muscles), traps (the back of your neck and shoulders), and gluteus maximus (largest butt muscles) also help comprise your core, Wilson says. However, they basically work to support the five major muscles listed above.
How The Muscles In Your Core Work Together
While each muscle plays a unique role in keeping your torso upright, they all share one overarching goal: To spare the spine any excessive load and transfer movement throughout your body in all directions, Wilson says.
“A weak core means weak movement patterns,” she explains. “A strong core yields quality movement patterns that help to prevent injury.” Basically, having a strong, balanced core is essential for pretty much any type of exercise you do.
In fact, both the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and National Academy for Sports Medicine (NASM) recommend that anyone starting a new workout program undergo core stability and strength testing and training before jumping in.
Strengthen Your Core With These 3 Types of Exercises
Although there are all sorts of exercises out there that target the different muscles in your core in different ways, Wilson prefers to take a more holistic approach to building core strength.
“I prioritize ‘anti’ movements over traditional exercises like sit-ups, hip dips, and Russian twists in my core programming,” she explains. “Your core was designed to resist movement, not create it.”
So if you want to strengthen yours Wilson-style, there are three main types of movements to should focus on:
anti-extension (arching forward or backward)
anti-lateral flexion (bending sideways)
“Mastering these anti-movements will help you develop a strong, stable base from which to better perform other exercises and transfer power and energy from head to toe more efficiently,” she says.
Here’s what you need to know about these three types of anti-movement—and which exercises will help you master each.
The goal: To keep your spine from extending or arching
The best anti-extension exercises: Plank and deadbug
How to: Start kneeling at back of mat with toes tucked and butt resting on heels. Walk hands forward to an all fours position with knees under hips and wrists under shoulders. Lift knees to form one straight line from heels to head. Keep hips high and abs engaged.
Sets and reps for results: Start with small increments of time, like 15 to 30 seconds. As you get stronger, build up to a minute or even two. Repeat for three to five total rounds.
How to: Start lying on back with arms extended toward ceiling in line with shoulders and legs bent to 90 degrees (knees above hips). Keep low back pressed into the floor, engage abs, and slowly extend and lower right leg until heel nearly touches floor and left arm until your hand nearly touches floor overhead at the same time. Pause, then return to start and repeat on the opposite side. That’s one rep.
Sets and reps for results: Perform for 30 to 60 seconds, then rest for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat for three to five total rounds.
The goal: To keep your spine from twisting to the right or left
The best anti-rotation exercises: bird dog and single-leg glute bridges
How to: Start on all fours, with hands stacked directly under shoulders and knees below hips. Keeping torso still and core engaged, simultaneously extend right arm straight out in front of body and left leg straight back behind body. Then, bring right elbow and left knee in beneath torso to touch. Repeat on the opposite side. That's one rep.
Sets and reps for results: Perform for 30 to 60 seconds, repeat on the other side, then rest for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat for three to five total rounds.
Single-Leg Glute Bridge
How to: Start lying on back with knees bent and feet shoulder-width apart and 12 to 16 inches from glutes. Extend right leg straight up towards ceiling with foot flexed. Keeping upper back on mat, engage glutes, drive through left heel, and raise hips off mat until knee, hips, and shoulders form a straight line. Keep core engaged the entire time. Pause at the top, squeezing glutes for one to two seconds. Then lower back down to the start. That's one rep. Complete all reps on left side before switching legs.
Reps and sets for best results: If performing without weight, aim for three sets of 15 to 20 reps per side. If adding weight, aim for up to 12 reps per side. Rest for 15 to 30 seconds after each set. Repeat for three to five total rounds.
3. Anti-Lateral Flexion
The goal: Keep your spine from bending side to side
The best exercise for it: side plank
How to: Lay on side with forearm flat on mat and bottom elbow lined up directly under shoulder, and both legs extended out in a long line. Feet can be staggered for more stability or stacked for more of a challenge. Engage core and lift hips off mat, forming a straight line from head to feet. Rest top hand on top hip or reach it up to the ceiling.
Reps and sets for best results: Start with small increments of time, like 15 to 30 seconds. As you get stronger, build up to a minute or even two minutes. Repeat for three to five total rounds.
What it Really Takes to Reveal Abs
In case you're reading this and thinking okay, great but how do I get a legit six-pack, a gentle reminder: Visible abs muscles require more than a solid core-strengthening routine.
“A visible six-pack relies heavily on your genetics, how much body fat you have, and where you store that body fat,” explains Wilson.
Of course, that doesn’t mean core training can't help to get you there eventually. “I would focus on building a strong foundation first and then take steps to change your body composition and reduce your overall body fat percentage,” Wilson recommends. “To see gradual results in the appearance of your abdominal muscles, prioritize heavy lifting, high-intensity interval training, adequate protein and water intake, sleep, and whole foods."
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