What is your core? For starters, it's way more than just your abs.
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You've probably heard a fitness instructor tell you to "engage your core" during class. That's because your core initiates and stabilizes pretty much all your movements. Plus, having a strong core improves your balance (according to a March 2019 study in PLOS One) and can help prevent injury.
But let's back up a bit. What is your core, exactly? And how might you know if you have enough core strength? Plus, do you really need a strong core to get those highly coveted six-pack abs? Here's what experts have to say about core workouts and core strength.
Read more: 6 Core Stretches That Will Make Your Abs Feel Amazing
What Muscles Make Up Your Core?
Your core isn't just your six-pack muscles. "It's layers of deep muscles that help support your pelvis, spine, butt, back, hips and stomach," says Katie Dunlop, CPT. "They are the foundational muscles for keeping our posture strong and tall and allowing us to twist, bend, run, jump and just move."
There are several main core muscles. These include:
- Rectus abdominis (the six-pack muscles)
- Transverse abdominis (the lower abs or the "seatbelt")
- Inner and outer obliques (they're on your sides and help you twist side to side)
- Multifidus (the deep muscles of your lower back)
- Erector spinae (the muscles that run along your spine)
- Diaphragm (the muscle at the bottom of your ribcage that supports breathing)
- Pelvic floor muscles (the muscles low in your pelvis that help control continence and have a huge role in pregnancy and birth)
How Do You Know if Your Core Is Weak?
When you have insufficient core strength, you can feel the ripple effects in just about every movement. According to Dunlop, some signs to look out for include:
- Poor posture or pain when trying to correct it
- Back pain you can't pin to an activity (like muscle soreness or injury)
- Poor balance
- Back pain after standing for a long time
What's more, if your back or neck is the only thing that's sore or worked after a core workout, you probably aren't using your core to support the movement you're doing, Wiersum says. That can be a sign of a weak core.
"Another way is to check when you're doing a push-up or a plank. Does it look like your belly button is pushing outwards? If so, try and engage to bring it towards your spine," she says. If you feel that outward push and you can't pull it in, your core is on the weaker side.
And while there are a few ways you can test your core strength, doing a bunch of crunches isn't one of them. Instead, Wiersum recommends this core exercise:
- Lie on your back, arms up toward the ceiling to start.
- Bring your hands down toward the floor like you're trying to reach for your feet.
- At the same time, lift your head, neck and shoulders up, trying to lift to about the tips of your shoulder blades.
If you can do this and can feel your belly button pulling down toward the floor without creating tension in your neck, then your core is probably pretty strong. (Kudos!)
Read more: What Are the Signs That Your Core Muscles Are Weak?
What Are the Best Core Exercises?
One of the great things about building your core strength is that you can incorporate it into any exercise by activating the muscles in your abdomen as you move through it. The more engaged and active those muscles are, the stronger they become.
You can also incorporate core-strengthening exercises into your workouts. "Great core exercises include toe taps, dead bugs and plank variations," says Wiersum. And science confirms that planks are one of the best core-strengthening exercises you can do, per a March 2016 study in Physical Therapy Rehabilitation Science.
"They are a full-body movement," Wiersum says. "Planks force your ab muscles to fight against gravity to stay engaged and pulled in which helps teach your body to appear 'flattened' on your stomach."
Move 1: Toe Taps
- Lie on your back, legs at a 90-degree angle and knees over your hips.
- Then, one leg at a time (or with both legs), hinge your knees so your toes move toward the ground. Only go as far as you can while maintaining a tiny space under your lower back (a neutral pelvis position).
- Then, with an exhale, lift your legs back up to their starting position, using just the strength of your abs.
"Think of your legs being dead weight, keeping the true 90-degree shape, and not worrying about the distance down; it's more about working the way up," Wiersum says. "It should feel like there is a seatbelt tightening from one of your hipbones to the other."
Move 2: Dead Bug
- Start lying on your back, legs at 90-degree angles and knees over hips. Arms are extended straight up toward the celling.
- Reach one arm overhead toward the floor as you extend the opposite leg straight out away from you.
- Exhale and think about pulling your belly button down to the floor to bring your leg and arm back to the start position.
- Switch sides.
Move 3: Forearm Plank
- Lie on your stomach and prop yourself up on your forearms, parallel to each other.
- Lift your body off the floor so that only your forearms and feet are in contact with the floor. Your shoulders should line up over your elbows.
- Your body should be in a straight line from shoulders to heels, as your belly button pulls up to your spine.
- Remember to keep breathing while holding the position.
- Start with holding 10 seconds, then try 20, 30 or 60.
Think of it as "lacing up your abs," like you're trying to tie up a corset around them. "Think about actively pushing into the ground, activating your quads and glutes, and try to reach your heels back away from your head," Wiersum says.
Planks on your forearms are a bit more challenging for your abs, as you're in more of a straight line, but balancing on your hands is a little more challenging for your arms and wrists.
Read more: 4 Stability Ball Exercises That Are Better for Your Abs Than Crunches
Can You Have a Strong Core but Not Abs?
Yes and no. "You can have a strong core but not have visible abs," Wiersum says. "Everyone has a different body composition naturally, and some of the strongest people will never have a huge amount of muscle definition."
It depends heavily on your body fat percentage. The higher it is, the lower the chances you'll have visible abs, even if you have Superman's core strength.
But on the flip side, having visible abs doesn't necessarily mean you have a strong core, she says. "Usually a defined six-pack does mean you have strong rectus abdominis muscles, but the rest of the muscles of the core can easily be neglected for the so-called 'vanity muscles,'" says Wiersum.
For a well-rounded and functional core workout, pay attention to as much of the muscles in your trunk as possible. Six-pack abs may come and go, but a strong midsection will serve you well your entire life.
Having visible abs just means your body fat percentage is low enough to show the muscle fibers beneath subcutaneous fat. You can 100% have great core strength without having visible abs.What does it mean to keep your core strong? ›
Core exercises train the muscles in your core to work in harmony. This leads to better balance and steadiness, also called stability. Stability is important whether you're on the playing field or doing regular activities. In fact, most sports and other physical activities depend on stable core muscles.Does having abs mean you have a strong core? ›
Six-pack abs do not mean you have a strong core. It is easier to get washboard abs than having a strong core. Clean eating and the right balance of body-fat percentage are enough to show you results. Abs just give our abdomen a nice shape.What causes a weak core? ›
Signs of Weak Core Muscles. Muscle weakness or decreased control of these muscles can be a result of surgery, injury or inactivity. Common signs of weakness or decreased control of your core muscles can lead to dysfunction in your movement and, ultimately, affect your quality of life.Does walking strengthen your core? ›
“Dancing, swimming, cycling, running, brisk walking, skipping rope, stair climbing, hula hoops, yoga and planks can all help you build your core muscles,” says Reddy. Ojha recommends at-home abs workout for the same.What are signs of a strong core? ›
- Your stomach will get flatter.
- Your abs will get more toned.
- Your low back pain will subside.
- You will perform movements with more ease.
- You will start automatically tightening your abdominal wall when lifting objects.
- Your neck and shoulder pain will subside.
When we're talking specifically about strengthening and building your ab muscles — not necessarily seeing them – "it can take anywhere from four to eight weeks, depending on what exercises you're doing and your eating habits," said fitness coach Nick Leyden, MS, CSCS.Can you have a 6 pack but weak core? ›
It can be hard to know if your core is weak, because even visible six-pack-abs are not a sign that your core is strong.What's the difference between your abs and core? ›
The 'core' muscles work together to keep the spine stabilised, maintain an upright body position as well as being critical for bending forward, backwards and twisting from side to side. Your abs sole function is to assist in bending the torso forward (a.k.a. Flexion of the lumbar spine).How do I strengthen my core after 60? ›
- Abdominal Bracing. This is the simplest exercise you can do, and it's a great place to start if you're just easing yourself into exercising. ...
- Seated Knee Lifts. For a nice progression from your abdominal bracing, you can start taking on some seated knee lifts. ...
- Seated Side Bends. ...
- Deadbug. ...
- Superman. Targets: Lower and upper back muscles, plus the glutes. Lie facedown on the ground. ...
- Side Bends. Targets: Obliques. ...
- Wood Chops. Targets: Obliques. ...
- Dead Bug. Targets: Upper and lower abdominals. ...
- Plank. Targets: Your entire core.
Tighten your abdominal muscles and lower your upper body onto your forearms, aligning your shoulders directly over your elbows and keeping your feet in the air behind you. Keep your back straight, making your body as much like a "plank" as possible. Hold the position and return to the starting position.What are the 6 signs of a weak core strength? ›
- YOUR POSTURE ISN'T ON POINT.
- YOU CAN'T DO THE “STAND UP” TEST.
- YOUR PLANK FORM ISN'T QUITE RIGHT.
- YOU UNINTENTIONALLY HOLD YOUR BREATH DURING EXERCISES.
- YOUR LOWER BACK HURTS OR FEELS STIFF AFTER EXERCISE.
- YOU HAVE BALANCE ISSUES.
The best way to build a big, strong core is by carrying heavy loads multiple days a week. Use different implements and don't be scared to go heavy. Picking up heavy-ass weights and walking with them is primal. And from a strength and hypertrophy standpoint, it enhances a midsection like no other.Does core strength affect bowel movements? ›
Maintaining a strong core also benefits bowel movements and your intestines, which helps to regulate much of your entire digestive system. If you're looking for speedier digestion, spending time strengthening your abdominal muscles may be helpful.Does your core weaken with age? ›
As we age, our core muscles weaken, and we can lose balance and stability. By doing core exercises regularly, you can help prevent these issues. A strong core promotes better posture and alleviates back pain. Strengthening the body will allow for better shoulder movement, hips, knees, and ankles.How do I activate my core? ›
- Lie on your back with your knees bent. (You can also do this while sitting up straight.) ...
- Exhale to pull your stomach in, imagining bringing your belly button to your spine. You should still be able to breathe but may feel the muscles around your abdomen and sides tighten. ...
- Hold for 5–10 seconds. Relax.
Walking is a great way to improve or maintain your overall health. Just 30 minutes every day can increase cardiovascular fitness, strengthen bones, reduce excess body fat, and boost muscle power and endurance.What happens if you do core everyday? ›
Training the core muscles daily may result in them being fatigued during heavy squats, cleans, and competition lifts, making training frequency a potential reason you are limited in core strength during lifts.Is walking 20 minutes a day enough exercise? ›
The researchers estimated that doing just 20 minutes of brisk walking every day or the equivalent (which would burn about 90 to 110 calories), would elevate a person into the “moderately inactive” group and reduce their risk of early death by 16 to 30 percent.
With the three core exercises above, that's not a concern. The bicycle, the Russian twist, and the towel plank knee-in are fundamental moves that will immediately start helping you achieve and maintain that strong core you've always wanted.What foods increase core-strength? ›
Fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fatty fish, and tea can all help accelerate fat burning and improve body composition. Meanwhile, you'll want to avoid fried foods, sugary snacks, refined grains, sugar-sweetened beverages, and excessive alcohol intake.What happens if you do too much core? ›
"The reality is while you are crunching your way to strong abs, you can actually be overworking your core and causing back pain and poor posture," she tells me, reiterating the importance of having a strong core, since it's the "main support for your spine, organs, pelvic floor, and entire body."How long does it take to strengthen weak core muscles? ›
Most can expect to see noticeable muscle growth within eight weeks of starting a new strength training routine. Linking this with aches/pains/injuries when seeing your Physiotherapist, most people look for a quick fix and once they are out of pain then they think they are cured.How can I strengthen my core everyday? ›
- Bird Dog (10-15 Reps) ...
- Knees-to-Elbows in High Plank (10-15 Reps) ...
- Knees-to-Opposite Elbows in High Plank (10-15 Reps) ...
- Side Plank (20-60 Seconds) ...
- Hip Dip in Side Plank (8-15 Reps) ...
- Reach-Under in Side Plank (8-15 Reps) ...
- Single-Leg Glute Bridges (10-15 Reps)
Does a weak core cause back pain? Back pain can be caused by many different things. If you have a weak core, that might be one of the contributors to your back pain. Your abdominals help support and stabilize your spine so if they're weakened or not as strong then it can lead to an increased risk for low back pain.Can a weak core affect breathing? ›
Many people do not realize that shortness of breath can be due to a weak core. The diaphragm is an internal muscle that separates your lungs and ribs from your digestive system. It also controls your breathing. The outer core muscles help to support the diaphragm, making breathing easier.How do you engage your core while sitting? ›
Sit tall in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and palms on top of your thighs. From here, gently press your right palm down into your right thigh while pressing your thigh up into your palm. Press firmly enough that you feel your abs tighten. Hold for a few breaths, then release and repeat on the opposite side.Should I train abs or core? ›
The core should be active throughout almost all training activities, and the abdominals should be trained to help balance the core and to look good at the beach. Thinking about the muscle fiber orientation is an advanced way to train, but developing this skill will undoubtedly take your training to another level.Should I do core or abs first? ›
If you want to take your workouts to a whole new level, start with your middle. “People achieve better results when they do core exercises at the beginning of their workout instead of the end,” says Alwyn Cosgrove, C.S.C.S., coauthor of The New Rules of Lifting for Abs.
Core Muscle Exercises are Better for Your Overall Health. Core muscles are better than just abs. Why? Your core is one of the most important muscle groups in your entire body.How can I rebuild my muscles after 65? ›
Strength training is the secret to muscle growth for older adults. It's best to do this with light weights and to work slowly. Slow movements with lighter weights force your muscles to work harder. If you don't have a set of weights, you can use your body weight with resistance exercises like push-ups and squats.Can you rebuild muscle at 65? ›
Repeated research has shown that, through weight training, men and women in their 60s and beyond can grow muscles as big and strong as an average 40-year-old.Can a 70 year old rebuild muscle? ›
Seniors Can Still Bulk Up On Muscle By Pressing Iron Our muscle mass decreases at surprising rates as we get older. But researchers found that people older than 50 can not only maintain but actually increase their muscle mass by lifting weights.Can you still build muscle at the age of 70? ›
“Research shows that, even into your late 80s, your body still has the potential to build muscle mass,” Stacy Schroder, director of wellness at Masonic Village at Elizabethtown, said.What is the best exercise for a 65 year old woman? ›
If you're an older adult looking to establish an exercise routine, you should, ideally, be able to incorporate 150 minutes of moderate endurance activity into your week. This can include walking, swimming, cycling, and a little bit of time every day to improve strength, flexibility, and balance.What happens to your body when your core is weak? ›
If you have a weak core, you are missing the link in the armour for your body. It connects our upper to lower body, it keeps us upright, helps us twist and turn and move freely without collapsing. When we have a weak core, we begin to see our ability to move become harder and our risk of injury increases.Why am I strong but don't have abs? ›
You Have Too Much Body Fat Covering Your Abdominal Wall
Strong abs aren't the most important component of a visible six-pack; low body fat is. If you have too much subcutaneous body fat covering your abdominal area, then no matter how many hours of crunches or leg raises you do, you won't be able to see your six-pack.
Yes, it's a hard-to-miss attribute of many fit people (many of whom proudly let it show on Instagram or while working out in a sports bra). But the truth is that defined abs are not a requirement for fitness, don't come easily to a lot of people, and sometimes don't come at all—even to dedicated fitness pros.Why am I fit but don't have abs? ›
1. You have too much body fat. The single most important aspect when it comes to getting your abs to show is having a low body fat percentage. All humans have abdominal muscles that can be made more visible with training – but ultimately to see your abs you need to be at 10% body fat or less (18% or less for women.)
“A visible six-pack may be a goal for many people – but visible abdominal muscles are in fact not a reliable indicator of physical fitness, they are an indicator of low body fat (around 10% for men and 14% for women) which is simply unachievable and not necessary for most people,” Hannah Lewin, Digme Fitness instructor ...Why is my core not getting stronger? ›
Your exercises are too easy
Choose exercises that are challenging for you in order to make strength gains. If you're still doing core activation exercises, heel slides and bridges months after having a baby or a new injury, it's just too easy. It's not that you'll lose strength, but you won't really gain any either.
Because the ab crack is dependent on the underlying physical structure of your abdomen, there's no ab crack exercise or diet that can make one appear if your linea alba isn't deep or wide enough to form this divot. If you have the underlying structure for an ab crack, losing fat should bring it out.Why do I have 11 abs without working out? ›
The only thing that determines if you have abs or not, is the amount of body fat you have on your body. If your body fat is low enough, your abs will begin to show, and the lower the fat, the more visible your abs will appear.Are abs genetic? ›
No matter who you are, the appearance of your abs is largely based on your genetics. “How visible they are, how they're shaped, whether they're aligned or crooked—it boils down to your DNA,” says Mike Israetel, Ph. D., sports physiologist and co-founder of Renaissance Periodization.Can you have a flat stomach and no abs? ›
Just because you have a flat stomach, doesn't mean you have strong abs. These are two different things. You can have strong abs and not have a flat stomach, and vice versa.Why is it so hard to get abs? ›
The primary obstacle to unveiling abdominal definition is, unsurprisingly, fat. “If you have fat covering your abs, you're not going to see a six-pack, and as a result, it's a not a realistic goal for most people,” says Kathleen Trotter, personal trainer and author of Finding Your Fit.Does oatmeal help with abs? ›
Whole grains like oats, barley, buckwheat, and quinoa can be a great addition to your diet if you're looking to get abs. In addition to being high in fiber, which can enhance weight loss, digestion, and blood sugar levels, whole grains are a good source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants ( 9 , 10 ).Why am I fit but have a belly? ›
If you have been exercising and still have belly fat, you could be doing the wrong style training, your stress levels may be too high, or you may have an endocrine disorder like polycystic ovary syndrome.At what body fat will abs show without flexing? ›
10 to 14 percent
This range of body fat is still lean, which means your abs will be visible.
It's common for naturally skinny guys to have smaller ab muscles, meaning that they don't show through very well, even at lower body-fat percentages. Fortunately, just like with the rest of our muscles, we can bulk up our abs.