Do you dream of the perfects “abs”? The legendary 6-pack? You totally should. Regardless of your age, there is reward for working your core!
They’re usually the first muscle group that people think about when they try to get back into shape. For good reason. The “abs”, or abdominal muscles, are located right next to the unsightly belly bulge that keeps many of us awake at night as we grow older. Of course, we’re mainly worried about our appearance. But when you understand the science, you know that belly fat is far more dangerous than its aesthetics – it is closely associated with the modern epidemic of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. So, the instinct to flatten your belly is a good one.
Actually, the best way to remove the bulge is to reduce your belly fat, rather than simply train or tighten your belly muscles. Aerobic exercise is the way to go, and for this and many other reasons, my principal lifestyle advice relates to your aerobic habits. Taking 10,000 steps on at least five days of every week for the rest of your life is my prevailing mantra, for WHealth.
Having said this, your abdominal muscles remain a critical part of your life, and should receive regular attention. But you’ll notice that exercise scientists no longer talk about “abs”; we talk about training or strengthening your “core”. This has been a crucial evolution in popular science.
First, let’s understand why we should take our core strength seriously. I’ll start with appearance. A strong core will definitely make you look better in your bikini or board shorts! There is good reason that our “abs” became known as glamor muscles. There’s something intrinsically appealing about the coveted “6-pack”, and strengthening the core muscles does make them a little tighter and better defined. That’s good!
More importantly, our core is the part of our body which enables us to move with power, efficiency and balance. Structurally, we consist of two sets of limbs connected by a long, relatively flexible spine. Our arms are able to work because of the stable base formed by our chest and shoulders. We refer to this as our pectoral girdle. Similarly, our legs work off the stable base formed by our pelvis and hips, which comprise the pelvic girdle. Our trunk connects these two centers of movement. The strength, flexibility and resilience of our trunk determines the quality of our overall mobility and functionality.
Our trunk has two parts to it. Mother Nature designed our chest, or thorax, to protect our heart and lungs. Inflexible, bony ribs protect these vital organs, but restrict our mobility. This leaves our abdominal region to provide flexibility, and Mother Nature provides a well-developed musculature to provide powerful coordination and movement of our upper- and lower-limb complexes, while protecting our abdominal organs.
So, core strength is not an optional extra; it’s not all about looking slim and trim. Our core is the most essential part of our locomotor system. Without it, we could not walk, run, reach, grab, hug, stand or even sit. It is, literally and figuratively, at the core of our human existence.
The major muscle groups that form our core are the abdominal muscles in the front that we recognize as our 6-pack (when we have it), the oblique muscles that wrap around our sides at an angle and help with rotation, and the complex group that comprise our back muscles. Together, these effectively form a muscular “tube”, with our spinal column at the back providing bony stability, and our internal organs safely held inside.
Each muscle group is responsible for a specific action. The abdominal muscles in the front enable you to flex forward, while your back muscles drive extension or straightening of your spine. None of them work in isolation, ever. Said another way: they are all working together, always! When you bend forwards, your back muscles are bracing so that you don’t fold in half. When you rotate, your oblique muscles are shortening on the one side, and bracing and stabilizing on the other.
That is why the old-fashioned practice of only doing “sit-ups” is no longer recommended. It only strengthens your abdominal muscles (and often only your hip muscles depending on how you do the sit-ups). Today, the best advice is to do a range of exercises that strengthen all your core muscles, while also increasing both their flexibility and endurance.
You can choose from a range of exercises that include crunches (not sit-ups), planks, side planks, push-ups (but beware of excessive strain on your back, especially if you’re tall), and the famous superman pose (where you lie on your belly then raise your arms in front of you and your legs behind you like you’re flying into action). Your form is important if you want to avoid injury, and there are a lot of good online resources that will help you to do the right exercises safely. If you have any history of back trouble or are in any doubt, or if you’re new to core training, then consider getting advice and instruction from a certified exercise consultant.
The good news is that ensuring this part of your physical WHealth isn’t particularly time consuming. Any movement or activity will work on your core, even walking! And 10 to 15 minutes of specific core training a few days of each week are enough to supplement your active lifestyle towards optimal core health.
A robust core will improve performance in your regular daily activities, chores around the house and garden, work (yes, even sitting becomes healthier), sports and leisure activities, while preventing back strain and injuries. There is one additional benefit. A strong core enhances your posture, and there is great science that shows how your posture not only impresses those you live and work with, but independently drives your confidence, happiness and success.
I hope that this article helps you to understand your core, and inspires you to treat it with the respect it deserves. A strong core will carry you to health, happiness and prosperity!