Building a strong core is so much more than just about building rock hard six-pack abs. In fact, having strong core muscles doesn't always result in visible abs! Abs are nice to have, but core strength has more to do with overall strength. It's the core of your body - This is why many strength trainers include core training into their usual weightlifting routine.
Ab exercises only target the abdominal muscles, and training the core is a little different. Core exercises target the different muscles that run the entire length of the torso, not just the ab muscles. So doing an endless amount of crunches and sit-ups is not really the best way to strengthen your core.
So put those sit-ups aside and learn more about core strength and exercises that will help you build a better, stronger core for a stronger you!
Why building core strength is important
Your core supports your entire body. It helps make daily activities easier like getting out of bed, bending down to pick something up, tying your shoes... But most importantly, it helps you stand and sit upright. But how? Well remember there is more to your core than abdominal muscles. Although those muscles are considered to be core muscles, like the transverse abdominis (stabilizes your spine and pelvis), oblique muscles (control lateral flexion, rotation, and other spinal movements), and the rectus abdominis (helps flex your torso forward). Your entire core has even more muscles involved like the pelvic floor muscles, back muscles, hip flexors, glutes, and your diaphragm.
All of these muscles work together to help you move around, pick up heavy objects, even breathe! Having weak core muscles can affect your everyday life and even potentially cause unwanted injuries.
Benefits of a strong core
Core strength plays a role in your daily life - It supports you to have better posture when sitting and helps you move around every day. It helps you do just about anything! So it is extremely beneficial to everyone because it allows your body to function properly.
Here are a few other key benefits of core strength:
- Improves balance and stability
Core exercises train the muscles in your abdomen, pelvis, hips, and lower back to work together. Having those muscles work together is what makes everyday tasks easier. They work together to support and stabilize your body making every day tasks easier and even allows your body to move in any direction without losing balance. Thus leading to better balance and stability.
- Helps prevent injury
Having strong core muscles supports your spine which promotes good posture. Posture is extremely important because bad posture can lead to back pain and other uncomfortable body aches. By improving it you decrease the risk of injuries like disc herniation and vertebrae degeneration. A strong core will also help you have better posture and form when performing exercises like squats, so you can lift heavier without sacrificing your form. On top of that, the core protects your internal organs - It is where your body's largest veins and arteries are. Strong core muscles is what helps ensure that everything stays protected as you take on your everyday tasks.
- Helps reduce back pain
A common side effect of a weak core is back pain. Although that's not the only cause... Unfortunately, low back pain is one of the inevitable downfalls of aging. In fact, it affects 4 out of 5 Americans at some point in their lives.  Luckily, regularly performing exercises that promote well-balanced, strong muscles in the core can help alleviate back pain. These exercises are commonly practiced in physical therapy to help those who experience back pain to reduce it.
- Helps build overall strength and confidence
Remember, the core supports your entire body. A stronger core = a stronger you. Developing core stability and strength will help you lift heavier weights with good form. Plus, your core helps you stand tall and upright which exudes strength and can even help you feel more confident.
Best exercises to build a strong core
It should be clear by now that building core strength is important, especially if you're strength training and trying to build overall strength. It's actually better to build core strength before building strength anywhere else because it's what helps you complete and continue exercises moves - Even if they're not primarily working your abs. For example, if you have a weak core and perform an overhead shoulder press your form might not be the best... There's most likely an arch on your lower back and your ribs are popped forward to help you get the weight up. That happens because your core isn't strong, so it's not going to help you lift that heavy weight. This can lead to overusing other big muscle groups which leads to an unwanted injury.
Building a proper base will help you perform better and with less risk of injury. To do that you must know how to build a strong core. Don't let social media fool you into doing crunches every day, that's the least effective way to build core strength. A proper core workout will challenge as many muscles as possible in coordinated movements, and engage your entire body.
Here are a few top exercises that help build core strength...
The plank targets your core, but it works your full-body. It helps strengthen your arms, shoulders, back, glutes, and legs.
Here's how to do it: Start on all fours making sure that your hands are below your shoulders and knees below your hips. Then straighten your legs behind you, feet hip-width apart. Make sure your core is tight and your hips aren't sagging down towards the floor. Hold that pose for about 30 seconds. The more you practice, the longer you will be able to maintain that pose. The side plank is a more advanced variation, but also very great for targeting the core.
- Glute bridge
Yes, this is a lower body exercise, but aside from targeting your glutes, it also trains your core.
Here's how to do it: Lie on your back with feet on the ground and knees bent. Tighten your glutes and lift your hips up off the floor. Make sure that your shoulders aren't shrugging towards your ears, focus on your core and glutes, and maintain that pose for 5 seconds. Lower to the floor and repeat 10-15 times. If you want to make it more challenging and really engage your core then at the top of the bridge lift your left leg off the ground, hold, then do the same with the right leg. Then return to the starting position.
- Bird dog
This exercise is an ideal core-strengthening move because it engages your core and back muscles while challenging your coordination, balance, and stability.
Here's how to do it: Start on your hands and knees, make sure your spine is neutral and your core is tight. At the same time, lift and straighten your right leg to hip level and lift and extend your left arm to shoulder level (palms facing down). Pause for a moment, and then repeat with your left leg and right arm. Repeat another 8-12 times. To make it more advanced and engage the core even further, add an elbow to knee crunch before returning to the starting position.
- Toe tap
This is an exercise that is commonly performed in pilates. It engages the core muscles while working the lower body.
Here's how to do it: Start by lying on your back with arms on the floor at your side with palms facing down. Lift your legs with knees bent at 90 degrees. Keep back pressed into mat and tighten your core, then slowly lower your right foot and gently tap the floor. Raise your right leg back to the original position and repeat with your left leg. Repeat another 8-12 times.
- Dead bug
This exercise is similar to the toe tap, but more difficult. It's a total core movement that helps teach you to keep your trunk stable while moving the rest of your body.
Here's how to do it: Lie on the floor facing up allowing your shoulders and back to fall heavy on the floor. Bring your arms above your head, perpendicular to the ground, and lift the knees so they are at a 90 degree angle. Lower your left arm and right leg at the same time, but just before touching the ground so they are hovering above the floor. Then return to the starting position and do the same with your right arm and left leg. Perform this move 5-12 times.
When performing these exercises, try to really focus on your core to engage your muscles. Increasing the awareness of the core muscles will help you activate them when doing exercises. And if you want to still train your ab muscles, feel free to do so! Just don't do them every day, especially exercises with repeating patterns like flexions and/or rotation of the spine - russian twists, crunches, leg lifts. Doing them frequently can lead to back pain and even injury, if you're repeatedly doing them incorrectly. Focus on the exercises listed above and any others that focus on stabilization or anti-rotation moves. The five exercises we discussed are great for beginners to start building strength in their core, but there are more variations and other core exercises that can be done once these become easier to perform.
Lastly, like with any muscle group, you shouldn't train your core everyday. Your muscles need rest in order to recover and grow. So plan your workouts effectively, especially if you lift weights. Power lifts and other exercises like deadlifts, squats, push ups, and farmer's carries actively engage your core muscles. So depending on your routine, train your core 2-3x a week. Once you start building core strength you'll notice a difference in your posture, everyday tasks, and even your workouts!