Why are core muscles important? We often hear about the importance of activating your “core” during exercise, but many people remain unsure on what comprises this complex network of muscles, and are at a total loss when it comes to how to get a stronger core (opens in new tab).
Is the “core” just another term for “abs”? Is the only way to get a strong core by doing intense abs workouts with weights (opens in new tab), or using the best abs rollers (opens in new tab) to carve a more lean and well-defined six-pack?
There's a lot more to this crucial group of muscles than initially meets the eye, which is why we sought the expertise of Arielle Martone, a physical therapist, yoga instructor, and owner of Find Your Way Mama, to ask the question – why are core muscles important?
Get unparalleled support from some of the best yoga mats (opens in new tab), or read on to learn more about what these muscles are, their role, and how you can strengthen them.
What are core muscles?
The core refers to a region in our trunk that houses the abdominal and pelvic organs. “Your core is your foundation, it provides the stability your limbs need to move freely,” says Martone. “It is made up of several muscles that provide stability and allow movement for your spine and pelvis.”
The major muscles that comprise the core are:
- Diaphragm: The primary muscle for breathing and the upper bounds of the core.
- Rectus abdominis: The muscle down the front of the abs (the “six-pack” muscle) that flexes the trunk and posteriorly tilts the pelvis.
- Internal and external obliques: “Side ab” muscles that help you flex the trunk to the side, and rotate.
- Quadratus lumborum: This deep muscle helps extend and laterally flex the spine (side bend).
- Transverse abdominal: This deep core muscle compresses and supports abdominal organs.
- Multifidus: This muscle stabilizes the spine during local movements.
- Erector spinae: The group of back muscles that run along your spine on either side and extend the trunk when acting bilaterally, and laterally flex the trunk when acting unilaterally.
- Pelvic floor muscles: These support the pelvic floor organs and control excretion, which is why pelvic floor exercises in pregnancy (opens in new tab)are so crucial.
Why are core muscles important?
Martone explains that the core muscles form a rectangular column that provides the stability our body needs to support movement of the head and limbs.
“Your core allows for functional movements. You can work a distal muscle group all you want and it will get stronger, but that will not translate into better or stronger function without the support of your core,” says Martone, who, when referencing distal muscle groups is referring to those in your extremities away from your trunk, such as your calves or quads. In other words, you need to have a strong core to see appreciable improvements in exercise performance or daily function, even if you strengthen other parts of your body.
“Picture someone performing seated bicep curls with their elbow supported. If that is all they do, that muscle will be able to lift more in that same position, but without the core, that person will not be able to use that strength in any meaningful way,” she says.
Martone adds that the core is also the starting point for our balance. “If our core is not performing well, neither will our standing balance.” Poor balance can increase the risk of falls.
The core plays an important role in healthy posture because many of the core muscles support and/or move spinal segments.
How can you get a stronger core?
We know that a strong core is important, but what is the best way to strengthen the core? Crunches? Planks? Endless sit-ups?
According to Martone, the most effective way to strengthen your core is to start with incremental specific core exercises, and good news – these do not have to be crunches.
“The focus of building a stronger core should be stability. When you are performing the exercises, you want to keep your spine in a neutral position and prevent as much wiggling as possible,” says Martone. “You can start small on your back and focus on your breathing. As you inhale, think about expanding and lengthening your pelvic floor. As you exhale, think about lifting your pelvic floor and gently drawing your abdominal muscles in and together.”
Martone says you should envision your belly button and spine moving closer together and bottom ribs and pelvic bones moving closer together as you perform this mindful core engagement exercise. Once you have that down, you can gradually add limb movements. She suggests heel slides, foot taps, and alternating arm reaches.
“Working on hands and knees and in planks, modified planks, and side planks are all great positions as long as the focus remains on stability,” says Martone. “Because the core is involved with functional limb movements, you can work on getting a stronger core during most other standing exercises.”
Though most people take to an exercise mat when they think of core exercises, Martone says standing core exercises are some of the most functional ones – since we need to engage our core to help stabilize and balance our body as we stand and walk in most everyday living situations.
Performing exercises on an unstable bit of kit, like balance board exercises (opens in new tab), can also help build your stability.
How can you activate your core muscles when working out?
The best way to activate your core muscles when working out is through your breathing technique.
“You want to make sure you are breathing and not holding your breath while working out,” says Martone. “When you hold your breath during activity, you build up the abdominal pressure, which puts strain on your core muscles.”
She says that visualization is also a good way to activate your core and the mind-body connection during a workout. While core-specific exercises are also helpful for targeting your core muscles, these muscles can also be activated with other standing exercises.
“Visualize what you want your core muscles doing,” says Martone. “Tactile input can also be helpful to facilitate activation. As the muscle is engaged and contracted – say, the rectus abdominis and transverse during alternating supine heel slides – you can gently tap on those muscles.” This tapping can help cue your brain to 'turn them on'.
What are common mistakes with core exercises?
Martone says there are several common mistakes she sees people making when it comes to core exercises, such as rushing through them, using sloppy form, and trying to do more than they are ready for. The priority should always be using proper form so that you can engage your muscles, reap the benefits of the exercise, and prevent potential injuries.
“Good core exercises are not always exciting, but they need to be done for proper activation and true benefits,” says Martone. “Another mistake is that people will only work one of the core muscles, usually the rectus abdominis, and forget about the rest. Your core routine should be varied and performed in various positions.”
Martone recommends aiming for a few core exercises most days per week, noting the following: “Your core is your foundation. A strong core allows you to move more effortlessly and often can lessen pain symptoms. A strong core allows for an overall stronger and better balanced person.” Find out how to improve your core strength at home in just three minutes (opens in new tab) to get you started.
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, Amber likes running, cycling, cooking, spending time outside, and tackling any type of puzzle.
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