Though core strength is often lauded as the secret to getting flat, toned abs, a strong core also means better balance and a fully supported spine. It can also prevent injuries during exercise. That’s why adding elements of core strength training to cardio workouts and your overall fitness program is one of the best things you can do for your body. We talked to a few top trainers to find out why and how we should be focusing on core strength to get fitter, faster.
Why is core strength so important?
Aaptiv trainer Michael Septh says a strong core creates a stable spine and allows for optimal mobility. “Core strength is your ability to recruit the muscles surrounding the hips and torso area that allow for safe movement patterns,” he explains.
“Everything comes out of your core,” agrees celebrity personal trainer Erin Oprea. “A strong core keeps you safe on so many levels. Most people don’t even realize how much they use their core on a daily basis.”
Jennifer McCamish, barre instructor and owner of Dancers Shape studio in Austin, says core strength is much more than having a six pack. “In the world of Pilates, for instance, your core is the entire trunk of the body from shoulders to hips. Having a stable core supports your spine, helps your body track more efficiently, and protects your body from injury.”
Oprea says there’s no need to do a direct core workout everyday, but to focus instead on engaging your core in daily activities. “I’ll tell myself, okay, for one minute, I’m going to hold my abs as long as I can while I’m driving in the car. And if you’re not sure of the difference between sucking it in and holding your abs tight, know that with the second one, you should be able to carry on a full conversation.”
I do so many sit-ups and crunches, but I’m not getting that six pack I want—why?
According to McCamish, defined core muscles result from active engagement of all layers of the abdominal wall. “The transverse abdominal wall is the deepest layer of the abdominals, and the most important when it comes to a flat belly It wraps around the midsection like a corset and stabilizes the pelvis.”
She recommends moving slowly in both directions when doing crunches or sit up, exhaling through pursed lips as you roll up, and pulling the lower belly and ribs down towards the spine. “Feel the contraction of all the muscles instead of relying on momentum, jerking and letting your belly pooch out,” she continues.
Oprea’s opinion on abdominal aesthetics is pretty straightforward. “The whole six-pack look starts in the kitchen and comes with clean eating,” she says. “All people have muscles underneath, so it’s more about getting body fat low enough to see them, which is very challenging for most people.”
Both McCamish and Septh concur about the impact of diet on weight goals as well as how your ab muscles look. McCamish endorses non-processed, real foods not in a package along with lots of water “as a simple way to de-bloat and flatten the belly,” and Septh praises much of the same, plus lean proteins with fruits and vegetables.
What are your favorite ab exercises, and what’s the best way to tone your abs?
For Oprea, the ab wheel is her hands-down favorite due to the emphasis on proper form for results. “One of my clients used the ab wheel and couldn’t do pull-ups the next day due to being so sore!” she says. “Even if you laugh super hard, you notice how just much you use your abs.”
She mentions ball throws and plank variations as incredibly effective, as well, and cautions repeatedly about the importance of form.“If you’re feeling a core exercise in your back, stop for a second and readjust your form, because you’re probably doing it wrong. You have to engage your core.”
McCamish prefers planks because they work the whole body, including the shoulder girdle, hips, abs, hamstrings, and quads.
A note of caution: crunches aren’t always the ab exercise of choice for some trainers, for specific reason. “By performing crunches repeatedly, the average person will only be producing force and flexion [bending of the limbs or joints] at their neck and lower back,” Septh says. “This doesn’t equate to strengthening the core but does put pressure on one’s lumbar spine, neck and hips, and that’s why crunches do not usually produce the best connection to core.”
How long does it take to build core strength?
Every person is different, but many trainers stress good form as the best way to experience more core strength over time. “Doing core exercises correctly is the best way to feel and see change quickly,” says McCamish.
Septh prefers to, as he puts it, “create an environment that gives each person the best opportunity to create proper connection to muscles that make up their abdominals.” His example: a “dead bug” position, which is performed by taking both arms and legs vertical to the ceiling. He asks clients to extend the opposite arm and leg toward the floor without hyperextending or curving the lower back, all while keeping the two limbs stable in the original starting position. Septh uses this type of ab workout as a starting point for clients at any level, and then works to adjust time or repetitions to switch things up.
“If you’re a beginner, start with a simple plank with great form,” says Oprea. “You can start on your knees if you have to, or move to elevated ones on a bench to make it a bit easier. You can do them lower to the ground, or focus on push-ups against a wall. The bottom line is that you have lots of options.”
What’s the difference between a strong and a weak core?
“A strong core keeps you from getting injured,” says Oprea. “But you have to engage your core in every single exercise—curls, shoulder presses, anything one-legged—by pulling your belly button into your spine, addressing pelvic tilt and so on, which can be very hard. A lot of people don’t understand how to use their core, and use their neck or back instead, which can lead to pain.”
In terms of how a weak core affects workouts, McCamish says most people run the risk of injury. “You’ll also experience more daily aches and pains, especially in the lower back, neck, hips and shoulders. You will most likely fatigue quicker and hurt more after activities.”
“A strong core benefits you through anything you’re doing in life, whether that is running around with your kids playing tennis or going golfing,” says Septh. “All activities generate from one’s core, and without that central connection, people can’t perform safe movements at the same time throughout the lower and upper body.”
Septh doesn’t rely on complex exercises to evaluate core strength, but encourages clients to move with stability during daily functional movement patterns. “For instance, if you’re continuing to feel it in your quads every time you do a squat,” he says, “that can be a clear sign of a weak core or lack of connection to pelvic floor.”
Oprea tells a story about a 79-year-old client with Parkinson’s disease. She’s always working to tighten his core because core strength provides stability with age. She also says her big test for checking core strength is, again, very simple: “How long can you plank without a saggy butt, or a butt in the air? That’s the way to know.”