Core and abs are two words that get thrown around more than reality show drama. They are, in fact, different. Here are three things to know:
- Exercising one does not necessarily engage the other.
- Nothing “automatically” strengthens your core (not even sitting on a fitness ball).
- People can be rotten to the core, and no exercise can fix that.
Let’s start with the first point.
Abs or Core, or Both
Much online clickbait (Get 6-Pack Abs Overnight!) focuses on abs because it’s the aesthetic part of the torso. It’s the part you present to the world when your shirt lifts up as you reach to stow your luggage in an overhead compartment.
The core, on the other hand, is a multi-faceted set of over 20 muscles that lies beneath the surface of the abs. The main core muscle, called the transverse abdominis (TA), wraps itself around your midsection like built-in Spanx.
The various muscles attach to your lower back (which is why a weak core contributes to back pain) and basically connect your ribcage to your upper body and your pelvis to your lower body.
Your core literally holds together your upper and lower body.
In other words, don’t leave home without it.
It not only protects your spinal column but stabilizes your entire body. It’s why it’s referred to as the “powerhouse” in Pilates. Everything relies on it.
Some pretty heavy stuff, no?
But unlike your abs, no one sees your core. People won’t come up to you and say, “Hey, your core is looking mighty fine.” (And if they do, call the police.)
Did you know your pelvic floor, the muscle you work when you do Kegels, is also part of your core? Yes, the action of contracting that muscle as if you’re trying to stop a urine flow is one of the primary core muscles exercises.
In fact, your pee-stopping muscle must be engaged to properly activate your core.
Automatic Fitness? Umm, No
This brings me to the fitness ball myth and other ways we think we automatically engage our core. “Oh, I’ll just sit on a fitness ball and work my core all day!”
No, you won’t.
Because here’s the thing: It takes a conscious awareness and purpose to kick in those core muscles. It’s not something that happens on its own.
Typically, you start out with all good intentions sitting up straight on the ball, using your core muscles to keep you upright.
So far so good.
After about 30 minutes this starts getting old, especially if you are doing work-related tasks or other activities that take your mind off of your oh-so-perfect posture.
As the day wears on your back gets tired. Before you know it, you’re rounding your spine and hunching over your desk like Quasimodo on his way to the bell tower.
This is nothing against fitness balls, which have tons of great uses. And it’s not totally a waste if you bought a fitness ball for this purpose. Just use it judiciously.
For example, if you like to use a ball as a chair, alternate it with a traditional, supportive chair every 20 minutes or so. And make sure you’re sitting on it with your feet flat on the floor and your back straight.
The Exercises That Do It
Finally, we get to the big question: What really works, then?
Your best approach is to use a mix of ab and core exercises to keep your midsection strong and ready for what life throws at it. In the end, it’s not so important to know which exercises work the specific muscles. Just include a variety and use this KEY tip below.
Before you begin any abdominal or core exercise, engage your core muscles. The easiest way is by imagining your little grandchild is about to tickle you. That pulling in of those muscles? That’s your core.
Hold that thought and then perform the exercise.
Here are a few of the best ab and core-activating exercises, and a link to a special free PDF that demonstrates these and more in a bonus I created just for Sixty and Me readers, below.
Planks are usually safe (always check with your doc, of course) even for those with back pain because they do not involve flexion – the action involved in curling up as in a crunch.
Another type of exercise that also works well is bird dogs. They are usually safe for everyone (kneel on something soft if you have achy knees like me) and involve balance, which we all need more of as we flip those calendar pages.
Doing the bicycle works your upper and lower abs as well as obliques. It was rated the best overall ab exercise by the American Council On Exercise (ACE).
Do these exercises three times a week and you’re off to a good start.
CLICK HERE to download your special BONUS, 5-Day Ab and Core Challenge.
Which core exercises do YOU like to do? Will you try a new one this week? Let’s chat!
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Please consult with your doctor to get specific medical advice for your situation.