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Your Core Involves More Than Just Your Abdominals

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Contrary to commonly held belief, your core isn’t only limited to your abdominal muscles. In reality, it comprises a complex group of muscles on your front and back kinetic chains that collaborate to maintain your stability, balance, and prevent injuries during both daily activities and workouts.

To address all of your inquiries, Shape has enlisted the help of two fitness experts to explain the main core muscles and recommend the best exercises to strengthen the entire muscle group. Additionally, they will shed light on the significance of core strength.

“Alter the popular perception, your core constitutes much more than just your abdominal muscles,” asserts Laura Miranda, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist based in New York City.

“If I were to alter the perspective of the world on one matter, it would be understanding that the core is encompassed in every exercise,” remarks Laura Miranda, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist residing in New York City.

Your Core Muscles Demystified

In its entirety, your core primarily serves to safeguard your spine, according to Laura Miranda, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist operating in New York City. “The objective is to regulate and shield your spine when you assume an upright position, handle weights, and particularly when you perform movements like bending, squatting, and hinging,” they explain. The core muscles do not act independently; rather, they work cohesively to maintain spinal stability and prevent injuries. Nevertheless, each core muscle has a distinct primary function.

The Core Muscle Group: Abdominals

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The Rectus Abdominis

The rectus abdominis muscles consist of a pair of elongated, parallel muscles that extend from your ribs to the front of your pelvis. This core muscle is responsible for trunk flexion, which refers to the ability to bend forward or “curl up,” as outlined by the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Additionally, one side of the rectus abdominis collaborates with the obliques and the erector spinae during lateral trunk flexion or bending to the side.

The Internal and External Obliques

The external oblique muscles are situated on the periphery of your abdomen, running diagonally from the lower portion of your ribs to your pelvis. Conversely, the internal obliques lie beneath the external obliques and extend diagonally from the pelvis to the lower ribs.

Both of these muscles have the task of rotating your trunk (also known as twisting to the left and right) and contribute to the sideways bending of your trunk, as per ACE.

Transverse Abdominal Muscle

The transverse abdominal muscle is the deepest muscle in the abdomen, and it envelops the entire waist like a corset to provide support to the spine, says Miranda. This core muscle is responsible for compressing the abdomen, such as when you contract your belly button towards your spine, according to ACE. It also aids in generating intra-abdominal pressure and offering deep core stability, which prevents excessive bending and extending to safeguard your spine, adds Miranda.

Core Muscle Group: Erector Spinae

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The erector spinae is a collection of muscles that runs vertically along both sides of the spine. These core muscles, also known as the back extensors, enable you to extend your torso, such as when you rise from a forward fold or arch your back into a bridge, according to ACE. On one side, the erector spinae collaborates with the obliques and rectus abdominis to permit sideways bending of the trunk. For instance, if you were to lean towards your right, the right side of your erector spinae would contribute to the movement.

Core Muscle Group: Pelvic Floor

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The pelvic floor is a group of four muscles (including the coccygeus, iliococcygeus, puborectalis, and pubococcygeus) located at the base of the torso, forming a hammock-like structure across the pelvic opening to provide support to the bladder, bowel, uterus, and vagina. Within the core, the pelvic floor also aids in stabilizing the spine, says Miranda.

Core Muscle: Diaphragm

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The diaphragm is an expansive, dome-shaped muscle situated at the base of the lungs, which contracts and expands as you breathe. Consequently, this core muscle plays a fundamental role in generating intra-abdominal pressure, or the stiffness required to facilitate movement and prevent excessive motion in the spine, says Miranda. Specifically, the diaphragm contracts during inhalation, increasing intra-abdominal pressure while simultaneously contracting the pelvic floor muscles and transverse abdominal muscle, according to research shows. (This guide explains the specific advantages of diaphragmatic breathing for exercise.)

The Significance of Training Your Core Muscles

Your core is at the center of everyday movements, such as lifting a child out of a crib, rotating to retrieve a can from the pantry, and even maintaining an upright posture.

The muscle cluster is also referred to when performing lower- or upper-body workouts in the fitness center, such as squats and tricep pushes, states Miranda. “If I could alter the perspective of the world on one thing, it’s comprehending that each and every single exercise is about your center,” they clarify. “Whether you’re lifting weight overhead, doing sideways elevations, performing something with hefty weights resting on your physique [think: hip thrusts], even though it’s a shoulder or leg workout, your capability to exert more weight and do it securely without harming your lower back is entirely dependent on your capacity to activate your core suitably all around.

Just envision a overhead press: Throughout this exercise, you’ll have to align your ribcage over your pelvis to place your spine in a neutral position, then utilize your entire core to maintain it there while you elevate the weights to the ceiling, states Miranda. “Your core is literally at the center, so if it’s not robust, you’ll actually encounter more difficulty with the exercise both in form and in the quantity of weight you can lift,” adds Erica Marcano, M.S., C.S.C.S., a certified athletic trainer in New York City. Without stability originating from your core, you run the risk of excessively arching your lower back to compensate, which, in the long term, can result in back pain and injury, states Miranda.

Furthermore, concentrating solely on one element of your core (think: the rectus abdominis, which generates that “six-pack” appearance) and disregarding the others (such as your erector spinae) could heighten your vulnerability to muscle imbalances, says Marcano. Eventually, the muscles on the weaker side of the body can become more susceptible to injury while training, and those on the stronger side can endure an overuse injury, Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., the founder of Training2xl, previously conveyed to Shape. TL;DR: You rely on your whole core — not just your abdominals — to safely and efficiently tackle activities both inside and outside of the gym, and it should not be underestimated.

Core Muscle Exercises Approved by Experts

While you’ll train and fortify your core during most exercises when executed correctly, there are a few exercises that specifically target core muscles that are worth incorporating into your fitness routine. The subsequent exercises concentrate on specific core muscles, but still enhance the others since your entire core collaborates, states Miranda. As you persevere through each repetition, remember to continue breathing, as your diaphragm plays a pivotal role in engaging your core and providing essential stability.

To Primarily Target Your Obliques

The internal and external obliques both create and prevent rotation, so contemplate exercises that train both, such as lateral medicine ball wall slams, rotational punches with a band or cable, plank pull-throughs with a dumbbell or kettlebell, recommends Miranda. Irrespective of the oblique exercises you opt for, make sure to perform them on both the right and left side of your body.

Lateral Medicine Ball Wall Slam

Laura Miranda, D.P.T., C.S.C.S.

Rotational Punch

Laura Miranda, D.P.T., C.S.C.S.

Plank Pull-Through

Laura Miranda, D.P.T., C.S.C.S.

To (Mainly) Target Your Rectus Abdominis

Instead of a conventional crunch, Miranda suggests performing reverse crunches — slowly bringing your knees towards your chest — while holding a resistance band above your chest to train this core muscle and reduce strain on the neck and back. To activate your pelvic floor, squeeze a small exercise ball between your knees, they recommend. You can also use a band or cable to do Pallof presses, an anti-rotation exercise that works your rectus abdominis and obliques, they say. To simultaneously engage your glutes, try a set of kneeling overhead Pallof presses, ensuring that your lower back doesn’t arch, says Miranda.

Reverse Crunch with Resistance Band

Laura Miranda, Doctor of Physical Therapy, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist

Pallof Press

Laura Miranda, Doctor of Physical Therapy, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist

Kneeling Overhead Pallof Press

Laura Miranda, Doctor of Physical Therapy, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist

To (Mainly) Target Your Transverse Abdominis

The transverse abdominis is activated in every core exercise, but to specifically target this corset-like muscle, lie on your back with both knees bent. Then, bring your right knee as close to your chest as possible, place your left hand on your right knee cap, and push against your leg with maximum force for a few seconds. “Your knee is pulling in and your hand is pushing away, and you should feel that side of your core light up,” says Miranda. “The more you push, the more tension is created in the core and your transverse.”

You can also try the traditional dead bug exercise, which involves lying on your back and simultaneously extending and lowering your right arm and left leg towards the floor, then repeating the movement on the opposite sides, says Marcano.

Transverse Abdominis Activation

Laura Miranda, Doctor of Physical Therapy, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist

Dead Bug

Laura Miranda, Doctor of Physical Therapy, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist

To (Mainly) Target Your Erector Spinae

The bird dog exercise is essentially a dead bug performed in a tabletop position instead of lying down, says Marcano. And it’s particularly effective for activating the erector spinae and rectus abdominis, as research shows. (For the record, Miranda typically recommends bird dogs and dead bugs only for beginners who are still learning how to stabilize a neutral spine, and once that stabilization is mastered, they suggest progressing to the more advanced exercises mentioned above.

If these two fundamental muscle exercises are effective for you and you personally derive pleasure from them, however, feel free to retain them in your routine.)

Bird Dog

Laura Miranda, D.P.T., C.S.C.S.

How to Integrate Core Workouts Into Your Exercise Regimen

So, how frequently should you perform these core muscle exercises? Prior to commencing a cardio session or strength-building workout, Marcano suggests completing a brief workout that activates 360 degrees of your core, from your rectus abdominis to your erector spinae. Consequently, these muscles will feel alert and prepared to provide support during your squats or jog, and you’ll be able to recollect precisely how it feels to engage each one of your core muscles, she states.

When you execute that swift core session, pay attention to any notable disparity in strength from right to left or front to back, adds Miranda. If you detect any imbalances in your muscles, perform an additional set on the weaker side, they advise. Those few additional repetitions may be aggravating, but rest assured, the remainder of your workout will only enhance.