Think a sexy six-pack is the only path to a healthy body? Think again. The abdominals are just one part of a muscle group known to athletes and average Joes alike as “the core.” These muscles play a central role in providing balance and flexibility during exercise and everyday life Core stability exercise principles. Akuthota, V., Ferreiro, A., Moore, T., et al. Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Colorado School of Medicine. Current Sports Medicine Reports 2008 Feb;7(1):39-44. . The core also promotes posture and helps ensure there isn't too much pressure on the spine Core stability exercise principles. Akuthota, V., Ferreiro, A., Moore, T., et al. Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Colorado School of Medicine. Current Sports Medicine Reports 2008 Feb;7(1):39-44. .

Aren’t Abs Enough? — The-Need-to-Know

It’s a common misconception to think of the core as just the abs— a.k.a the (supposedly) sexy, top of the gut. But the core is actually comprised of 58 different muscles between the diaphragm and the bottom of the pelvis Core stability exercise principles. Akuthota, V., Ferreiro, A., Moore, T., et al. Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Colorado School of Medicine. Current Sports Medicine Reports 2008 Feb;7(1):39-44. . These muscles act as a thick bridge between the body’s top and bottom halves. Remove just one part and it all comes tumbling down The role of core stability in athletic function. Kibler, W.B., Press, J., Sciascia, A. Lexington Clinic Sports Medicine Center. Sports Medicine 2006;36(3):189-98. .

The core is thus a pivotal part of the kinetic chain of movement (think of the body as one big catapult with the feet at the bottom and the arms at the top). If there’s a weak middle link (the core), energy won’t flow as fluidly between the between the two ends of the chain. Baseball players use their cores to generate speed when throwing the ball and can develop lower back pain if their cores are weak. Golfers rely on their cores for a strong, dynamic swing. Runners especially need a strong core to maintain posture, generate speed, and power up hills. Of course, there are some sports with even more obvious reasons for core strength (Warning: watching the hyperlinked video is likely to make some people hold their stomach and cringe).

The Core Curriculum — Your Action Plan

A “weak” core can stem from two sources, the first being that the 58 muscles are simply underdeveloped relative to one’s chosen activity. Alternatively, people can develop a core imbalance by overdeveloping one side of the core while ignoring another— for example, working out the abdominals but neglecting the lower back. So while people may be ripped in front, they still run the risk of injuring their lower back and even herniating a disc. Developing a balanced bridge isn’t always easy, especially since it’s comprised of so many different types of muscles.

The good news is that virtually all forms of exercise and athletic movement engage the core in some way. For extra strength beyond the field, compound functional movements like squats and deadlifts are great for targeting the full range of core muscles. Bodyweight exercises like pull-ups and pushups are also effective and force the body to tighten the core throughout the movement. But that’s not to say focusing on specific parts of the core isn’t effective— in fact it can be vital in correcting imbalances. Just remember, an effective workout not only targets the abdominals (the front—check out our list of the 45 #Greatist Ab Exercises), but also the obliques (the sides), and the lower back (the back, surprise).

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