Magazines and websites tout the benefits of core strength training. But is core strength really an essential part of a well rounded fitness program?
Having a strong core offers numerous benefits for athletes, desk workers, people who work on their feet, children, and older adults. Core strength is not just for those involved in sports and recreation.
This article overviews the anatomy of the core and looks at the differences between a strong and a weak core. The following 11 benefits of core strengthening may improve your overall physical health and well-being.
Your core is made up of more than your abdominal muscles, or abs. The muscles on the front side of your lower trunk (core) are just one side of the box-shaped core.
Wendi Weimar, PhD, director of the Sport Biomechanics Laboratory at Auburn University, explains that one of the reasons for the misunderstanding is that many people “don’t have a strong grasp of which muscles are the ‘core’ muscles.”
“So people will do exercises that they think are working the ‘core’ but are not.”
Take a look at the main parts of the core, or trunk.
Muscle groups of the core
- Abdominals. The rectus abdominis is the muscle most people associate with a six-pack. It helps stabilize the internal organs. Known as the corset muscle because of its horizontal positioning, the transversus abdominis is another important abdominal muscle involved in movement and spine stabilization.
- Obliques. Located along the sides of the body, the internal and external obliques play a role in spinal protection and rotation.
- Back. The quadratus lumborum is a deep abdominal muscle located in the lower back. It extends from the lowest rib to the top of the pelvis. It’s commonly associated with back pain, posture, and mobility issues.
- Pelvic floor. The pelvic floor houses organs such as the urethra, bladder, intestines, rectum, uterus, cervix, and vagina. It also includes connective tissues such as hamstrings, hip flexors, and abductors. Together, the pelvic floor muscles and tissues help with sexual health, hip stabilization, urination, bowel movements, and more.
- Spine. The erector spinae and multifidus muscles are technically back muscles, but they’re both connected to basic movement via the spine.
- Glutes. The glutes are a group of three muscles in your backside that influence hip rotation and extension.
- Diaphragm. The diaphragm is a muscle typically associated with breathing, as it contracts and flattens during inhalation and exhalation. Located at the base of the chest, the diaphragm has openings that are also involved in digestive function and blood transportation to the heart.
Now that you have a basic understanding of core anatomy, here are 11 evidence-backed benefits of core strengthening.
Because of the confusion about what the core is, many people think that core strengthening means just doing ab workouts.
“It does equal some ab training,” says Sarah Walls, a personal trainer and the owner of Strength & Performance Training, Inc. (SAPT) in Virginia.
“But it also equals training your hips, training your back, and learning how to stabilize the core musculature.”
Stabilizing the lower back
A 2017 study suggests a correlation between decreased core back muscle quality and aging. The researchers emphasize the need for intervention in older adults with back pain, particularly for people who are overweight.
Findings from the same study confirmed that women have smaller core back muscles than men. This suggests a potential link between hormonal changes after menopause and core muscle quality.
Beginner core exercises may help strengthen your core back muscles, improve balance, and restore physical performance. Start with bridge lifts or toe taps before working up to more advanced exercises.
Those in the training group performed a series of exercises for approximately 30 minutes per day for 5 days per week. The specific exercises involved movements to target the transverse abdominis, multifidus, diaphragm, and pelvic floor muscles for increased stability of the spine.
The researchers had trouble differentiating improvements in static and dynamic balance. But overall, the exercises had a desirable effect on the training group’s core stability.
These findings suggest that young and older adults can benefit from targeted core exercises to improve movement control and posture reaction. Learning to engage your core muscles can help you stay upright before a fall or sports injury.
Helping with balance
For many people, an occasional stumble or trip can be surprising but generally poses little to no danger to a person’s daily life.
Other people taking certain medications or managing health conditions such as arthritis are more prone to coordination and balance problems on a regular basis. Another risk factor for poor balance is aging.
A 2021 review of studies found consistent evidence to support the hypothesis of improved balance, independence, and quality of life in older adults who completed daily core strength exercises.
If you’re having a hard time getting started because of a medical condition, working with a certified therapist, personal trainer, or exercise partner is a good strategy to keep you motivated and accountable.
Ask a healthcare professional for additional advice on how to perform core exercises safely based on your physical abilities.
Supporting better posture
Many people unconsciously have poor posture from looking down at their phones or computers. This can lead to neck, shoulder, back, and other musculoskeletal disorders.
Beyond improving stress levels and flexibility, yoga is one of the best types of exercise to stabilize core muscles, according to a
Standing, sitting, and reaching yoga poses can activate certain core muscles. Over time, this may improve posture.
Supporting better exercise form
In the same way that core exercises improve standing and sitting posture, core strength training has the potential to help your workout form.
In particular, two classic exercises of gym classes from years ago have now fallen out of favor, due to the potential for injury.
“Spinal flexion — as far as crunches and traditional situps go — is a really bad idea because of all the pressure it puts on the spine,” Walls says.
You can still work the core, though, even without over-flexing the spine with jerky situps.
“You get a lot of these core exercises where there’s no spinal movement — or very little — depending on what you’re doing,” Walls says.
One of the most popular stationary core exercises is the plank. This basic exercise strengthens your body from head to toe, but it can also make your core pop.
Both athletes and nonathletes should think about stability in terms of being able to complete tasks easily and independently.
Stability isn’t just about staying on two feet and preventing falls. Balance exercises that engage the core muscles can help you climb stairs, hold heavy objects, and stay coordinated as you age.
Making everyday movement easier
A small older study from 2011 did not find a correlation between core training and functional movement. But the researchers argued that the lack of evidence stems from the need for universal definitions and testing methods among studies.
That said, engaging your core through intentional breath control and better posture can certainly offer benefits for everyday movements such as bending, lifting, and turning.
When you learn to identify core muscles and how they work, this self-awareness helps to remind you to ground your movements from your core as you go about your day-to-day.
Helping to reduce or prevent pain
Although exercise may be the last thing on your mind when you have chronic pain, many studies tout the benefits of core strength training for back and hip pain.
According to a
The bulk of the research on this subject has yet to outline a standardized system for comparing the benefits of core training to resistance training. That said, core strength training is a safer and more approachable form of exercise for people with back pain compared with resistance exercises.
You can do core exercises at home without any special equipment using guided videos.
Supporting strength training exercises
Children, teens, middle-aged adults, and older adults can all benefit from daily weight training.
The American Heart Association recommends doing muscle strengthening activities
“The core muscles are important because they stabilize the center of the body so that the muscles of the appendicular skeleton can pull against a stable platform,” Weimar says.
When you swing a tennis racket, kick a soccer ball, or pick up a crying toddler, your core should fire up before your limbs get to work. Prioritizing your core strength provides a solid foundation for the rest of your body, including the ability to perform weight bearing exercises correctly.
Making running easier
The benefits of core training for runners have yielded inconsistent results in
Since running engages core muscles in the hips, glutes, back, and spine, it’s possible that target core exercises could benefit your running form, speed, and respiration.
Helping to reduce lower body injury
Research from 2018 shows a link between core stability and injuries to the lower extremities (hip to toes).
Based on findings in athletic populations, the researchers suggest that healthy individuals with a history of hip, feet, or leg injuries may want to include core strengthening exercises in their training programs to offset deficits in core stability.
Core training can be particularly effective for adults 65 years and older who are at an increased risk of falling. According to the
Read more about the best core exercises for all fitness levels.
If you’re physically able, a quick set of situps can give you a general idea of where you fall on the core strength spectrum.
Many variations of situps involve exercise tools such as stability balls, so you can still reap the benefits of situps even if you can’t do the traditional floor variation.
Strong core vs. weak core
People with a strong core can hold certain core postures longer with focused attention on breathing and posture control.
A weak core is associated with chronic back pain and poor posture. You may find it hard to hold core exercises for long periods.
You can try a simple plank test to gauge how strong your core is and assess which muscles need improvement.
The core is an interconnected group of back, hip, pelvic, glute, abdominal, and diaphragm muscles.
Working on core strength has numerous benefits, from improved posture, balance, and movement to pain management and injury prevention.
Although fitness influencers and experts often steal the spotlight on this subject, people of all fitness levels can benefit from a stronger core. Remember to consider your body and fitness abilities when starting a core strengthening routine.