Why a strong core is essential to fitness–it’s about more than toned abs

Most people think of a strong core as having a six pack. While muscle definition in your abdominals sometimes indicates a strong core, it is not just about the appearance of abs. A strong core is essential to fitness, and affects everything you do.

First of all, your core encompasses much more than your abs. The core also includes muscles of the back, glutes, hips and legs. And because everything stems from the core, every movement involves the core and is therefore affected by its strength.

So why is core strength essential?

Like I said earlier, your core affects everything you do. For example, you rely on your core strength when lifting that gargantuan laundry basket to do a load of laundry. Or when you’re hoisting your carry-on suitcase into the overhead compartment on the airplane. And of course, when you exercise—including how you are able to engage your muscles, which affects your speed, agility, stability, endurance and strength gains.

Now that you know what the core involves and how it affects your everyday life, let’s talk about the problems that stem from a weak core.

Signs of a weak core

  1. Back pain or tension. You know if you have back pain. This is related to weak core muscles.
  2. Poor posture. If you sit most of the day, you probably have poor posture. Sitting for long periods weakens the glutes, back and core muscles, which leads to poor posture and, as stated above, back pain.
  3. Inflexibility & limited range of motion. Do you struggle to hold a plank, squat properly, or execute a push-up? All these movements are related to core strength.
  4. Overall muscular weakness. Do you feel like you’re not seeing results from your workouts? You’ve been lifting weights but you’re not really getting stronger? A weak core is likely part of the problem.

In short, having a weak core sucks. But, there are ways to fix it! And trust me, the benefits of a strong core are worth the effort it takes to build it.

How a strong core will benefit your health and fitness

  1. Reduced back pain, better posture and improved spinal health. A study from the Journal of Physical Therapy Science shows that people with chronic back pain who incorporated core training into their routines experienced a reduction in pain and improved spinal health. Not to mention, people will no longer have to tell you to “stop slouching!”
  2. Improved performance in workouts and increased fitness. Since every movement stems from the core, a stronger core will naturally enhance your fitness. This includes improved speed, agility, endurance, strength, flexibility, and balance. In addition, a strong core will allow you to train more efficiently, because you will be able to properly engage your core muscles. You’ll actually see results from your workouts–you’ll look and feel stronger.
  3. A flatter, more toned stomach. When you properly engage and strengthen your core on the inside, you will start to see results on the outside. On the other hand, to see abdominal definition, you need proper nutrition. See my post on how to start eating healthy and stick to it for ideas. With good nutrition plus a consistent core training regimen, you will notice a leaner waistline, a flatter stomach and overall improved muscle tone.
  4. Repaired abdominal separation (diastasis recti). This one applies to all my mom friends–no matter if you have a 3-month-old or a five-year-old, diastasis recti, or abdominal separation, probably affects you. Pregnancy majorly screws up your core, and most women have some degree of core dysfunction as a result. But, by learning to properly reengage your core muscles and strengthen them, you can heal your core dysfunction. I love pre and postnatal expert Nancy Anderson’s blog and programs that focus on rebuilding core strength postpartum.

7 exercises for a stronger core

These are my go-to exercises that I use myself and to train clients. No matter your fitness level, you can do these exercises to build a stronger core.

  1. Foundational core exercises: Dead bugs, bird dogs, and bear crawls. These exercises focus on core engagement, specifically of the transverse abdominis, or the inner abdominal wall. The TVA strengthens your core internally, stabilizes your body, and supports your spine. It’s what tightens up your abs, thus giving you the appearance of a leaner waist externally.
  2. Glute bridges. Glute bridges help build core stability, while strengthening your posterior chain, including the back, glutes and hamstrings. Variations: single-leg glute bridge, weighted glute bridge.
  3. Deadlifts. This full body exercise is one of my go-to’s for every single client I train. Deadlifts engage all muscles of the core. They’re important for not only building a stronger core, but for overall strength and stability. Variations: Romanian deadlifts, single-leg RDL.
  4. Planks. All my clients will tell you that I love planks–especially when I can just watch other people do them! But really, planks are my favorite core exercise. Not only will they strengthen, tone and tighten your abs, but they also engage your glutes, back, legs, shoulders, and more. Plus, there are a million different ways to do a plank! When you hold a plank, you improve your core stability and strength. You can also add movement of the arms and/or legs in a plank for more reactive core training. Variations: Plank on hands, forearm plank, side plank.
  5. Back extension. This exercise is beneficial for spinal health, stabiltiy and strength. Sitting, bending over, lifting heavy objects–everyday activities–all these utilize the muscles of your lower back. Back extension exercises will reduce risk of injury so you can perform everyday life activities and exercises without compromising your spine. Variations: Superman, Hyperextension.
  6. Anti-Rotation exercises. These exercises focus on core stability and resisting torso rotation to build core strength. Being able to stabilize your core and resist rotation will prevent injury as well as increase your power. Whether you’re an athlete looking to enhance performance or you just want more out of your workouts, these exercises are essential. Variations: wood chops, Paloff press.
  7. Weighted carries. Another full body exercise that will strengthen the core. It’s basically walking with heavy weights, which is transferable to real-life situations like moving, carrying a car seat, grocery shopping, etc. Variations: farmers carry, overhead carry.

Strong, healthy and toned

A strong core is essential to fitness, and now you have the knowledge and tools to obtain one. Whether your goal is to alleviate pain, improve your athletic performance, or tone and shape your abs, a core strengthening regimen will change your fitness and overall health. In the gym, at work, or with your kids, a stronger core will benefit you in everything you do.

Looking for more exercise tips? Check out my post on 4 types of exercise for your strongest, healthiest body and how to create an exercise plan that works.