When it comes to being in shape and working toward your fitness goals, a lot depends on your core. The muscles in your core — which extend from your chest and upper back to your hips and glutes — initiate and support just about every movement and are important for building flexibility and endurance.
Read more: So, What Exactly Is Your Core?
How a Strong Core Benefits Your Everyday Life
Basically, your core supports everything you do. "First and foremost, it supports and protects your spine," says Kat Wiersum, certified Pilates instructor at Amplified Pilates Center and interval instructor at Studio Three in Chicago.
That can mean preventing or lessening back pain — good news for the 80 percent of Americans that deal with it, according to the American Chiropractic Association.
"Beyond that, it ensures your body is in correct alignment and lets your bones and muscles move in the most uninhibited way possible." The stronger your core is, the more correctly your body can move, which will help you feel less pain or tension during your day-to-day life.
When your core is weak, it can lead injury in other parts of your body as the other muscles attempt to compensate. For example, if your glutes (yes, they're part of your core!) are weak, that can lead to overuse in your hip flexors and lower back, Wiersum says.
A solid, stable torso also gives your workout performance a boost. For example, in a 2018 study in The Saudi Journal of Sports Medicine, working on core strength improved the pace of speed skaters. And a March 2019 study in PLoS One, found that college athletes were able to improve their balance, endurance and running economy with eight weeks of core training.
Why Strong Abs Are Also Important
Your entire core is important, but your abs are important on their own, too! Since your abs are a part of your core (and a pretty large part, at that), the stronger your abs are, the stronger your core will be as a whole.
"Since we spend a lot of time moving forward and forward-facing, the front-body muscles tend to do a little more work naturally than the back-body muscles," Wiersum says. So, your abs are primarily responsible for keeping your posture strong and your body aligned.
How to Tell if You Have a Strong Core
With all of the above-mentioned benefits, who wouldn't want a strong core? But how can you tell if yours needs work?
Lift yourself up into a forearm plank and assess. Does it look like your belly button is pushing outwards? If so, try and engage it better to bring it toward your spine, Wiersum says.
Now time yourself. "You should be able to hold it for at least 30 seconds without lifting or shifting your hips," says Katie Dunlop, CPT.
Or you can try the leg-lowering test. "Lie on your back with hands at your side or thumbs slightly under your hips," Dunlop says. "Straighten your legs and lower them toward the ground without compromising a neutral spine position to at least a 45-degree angle," she says.
What Six-Pack Abs Say About Your Core Strength
So if you have six-pack abs, that must mean you have amazing core strength, right? Not always. "Simply having a six pack doesn't mean you're strong, and people can also have a six pack that shows because of their low body fat percentage, but they may not have solid core strength," Dunlop says.
Usually, six-pack abs can indicate that you have strong rectus abdominis muscles (the front of your abdomen), but you could still be overlooking the rest of the muscles of your core Wiersum says. And that puts you at risk for injury and pain. "This is common when people only work their rectus abdominis and neglect their back muscles especially," she says.
At the same time, someone may be strong and have a well-functioning, aligned core but never have visible abs. So, don't use just your abs as a way to define a strong core. Think of it as a nice perk if you have a chiseled midsection, but not as a measure of what's necessary to be healthy or fit.
How to Strengthen Your Core
Ensure that you're reaping all the benefits of a strong core you whole life long with these exercises.
Move 1: Forearm Plank
- Lie on your stomach with your forearms tucked underneath your body. Your elbows should be under your shoulders with your forearms extending out in front of you.
- Lift your hips and torso off the floor, supporting your body using your elbows, forearms and hands.
- Keep your body aligned from your ankles to your neck, keeping your back and hips as straight as possible. Look three to five inches in front of you to keep a neutral neck alignment.
- Hold the position for 30 to 60 seconds, or as long as you can.
Move 2: Bicycle Crunches
- Begin lying on the ground and place your hands behind your head.
- Raise your legs at a 45-degree angle, fully extended.
- Raise your torso and bring your right knee toward your chest, twisting your left elbow toward the knee.
- Keeping the shoulder blades off the ground, extend the right leg and bring the right knee toward the face, twisting the left elbow toward the knee.
- Continue alternating, keeping your upper body off the ground.
Move 3: Bird-Dog
- Start on your hands and knees with your back parallel to the floor.
- Slowly straighten your left arm and right leg until both are aligned with your back, pointing straight out.
- Hold this position for a few seconds, then slowly alternate to your right arm and left leg, returning to the starting position each time.
- As you alternate arms and legs, focus on keeping your back and torso as still as you can. Don't arch your back or allow your hips and shoulders to sag in either direction.