Are Abs Everything?

Are Abs Everything? The Importance of Training Your Core

For many years now, influencers and fitness fanatics on social media have posted their top tips for getting abs, which were for a long time considered to be the picture-perfect image of health and fitness. While I am glad to say that ‘having abs’ is being less commonly used as a marker for one’s health, there is still merit in promoting content that encourages people to train their core.

People often use the terms core and ‘abs’ interchangeably or refer to the core as if it is one big muscle. The core is actually made up of various muscles all of which are central to the body, including various muscles in the back, the diaphragm, pelvic floor, and iliac psoas. The core also includes the abdominal muscles which consist of the transversus abdominis, the rectus abdominis (the symmetrical, toned, brick-like muscle formation that we all think of as ‘The Abs’), and the internal and external obliques.

In combination, these muscles provide various important functions for the body such as stabilising the spinal column, supporting and protecting various internal organs (as there aren’t many bones in your trunk to protect them), upholding good posture, and controlling intra-abdominal pressure. The core muscles also play a large role in balance and stability as we, as humans, are top-heavy. Being able to walk on two legs and hold up our upper body is quite a feat even though it may not feel like it.

Strengthening your core muscles and increasing core stability has been associated with an improvement in low back pain[1][2][3][4][5], reduced injury rate during exercise[6], improved mobility and a reduction in falls in older adults[7][8], and enhanced sports specific performance.

A study by Okada et al., suggested that core exercises are most beneficial for injury prevention in oppose to improvements in sports specific performance[9], however, there is a range of studies to suggest that core training may be beneficial for general athletic performance[10], and more specifically for soccer players[11][12], swimmers[13], and runners[14][15] (cross country and track running). Performance improvements have also been found in handball[16] players and those who practice Judo[17].

The research into core training and injury prevention is limited, however, there is evidence that core weakness is associated with knee and hip overuse injuries. Patellofemoral pain is a common complaint in runners, triathletes, and military recruits. It is also known as “runners’ knee”. Various studies have suggested that improving both trunk stability and strength can help to reduce knee injury risk by allowing for better knee loading patterns[18][19][20][21]. The evidence for other types of injury prevention are unclear at the moment.

So how does one improve their core strength and stability?

Many influencers online suggest that in order to have a strong core or grow abs, you need to perform certain ab specific exercises. A couple of studies looking at the activation of core muscles have suggested that free-weight compound exercises may in some cases be more effective for overall core strength than isolated core exercises[22][23]. It seems that out of all of the movements included, Bulgarian split squats activate the rectus abdominis (the muscle we typically think of as ‘the abs’) much more than movements such as sit-ups. It is noted this is possibly due to the forward tilt of the movement, as high muscular activation was also found in the regular back squat.

Deadlifts, hip-thrusts, back squats were all found to be good in activating various core muscles. Other exercises included roll-out planks, suspended front-planks, kettle-bell swings, unilateral dumbbell press, and bird dogs. The results from these studies suggest that you don’t need to necessarily waste your time performing a million reps of sit-ups, or crunches after you’ve finished your workouts to target your core muscles. In fact, one study suggested only using isolated abdominal exercises where your primary goal is to build your ab muscles[24].  

If you are looking to strengthen your core, whether its for sports performance, injury prevention, or posture, you don’t need to buy into the promise of isolated core or ab exercises. Equally, you don’t necessarily have to dedicate time to strengthening your core as the likelihood is that some of the exercises you’re already doing will be targeting your core without you even knowing! Abs aren’t everything, but a strong core is important and is by no means difficult to achieve. If you want abs, go for all those isolation exercises but if all you want is a strong core, cut the crap, save time and split squat (or just normal squat) to your heart’s content!

[1] Brian J. Coulombe and others, ‘Core Stability Exercise Versus General Exercise for Chronic Low Back Pain’, Journal of Athletic Training, 52.1 (2017), 71–72 <https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-51.11.16&gt;.

[2] Aatit Paungmali and others, ‘Lumbopelvic Core Stabilization Exercise and Pain Modulation Among Individuals with Chronic Nonspecific Low Back Pain’, Pain Practice: The Official Journal of World Institute of Pain, 17.8 (2017), 1008–14 <https://doi.org/10.1111/papr.12552&gt;.

[3] Gulsah Ozsoy and others, ‘The Effects Of Myofascial Release Technique Combined With Core Stabilization Exercise In Elderly With Non-Specific Low Back Pain: A Randomized Controlled, Single-Blind Study’, Clinical Interventions in Aging, 14 (2019), 1729–40 <https://doi.org/10.2147/CIA.S223905&gt;.

[4] Liye Zou and others, ‘The Effects of Tai Chi Chuan Versus Core Stability Training on Lower-Limb Neuromuscular Function in Aging Individuals with Non-Specific Chronic Lower Back Pain’, Medicina (Kaunas, Lithuania), 55.3 (2019) <https://doi.org/10.3390/medicina55030060&gt;.

[5] Muhammad Waseem and others, ‘Treatment of Disability Associated with Chronic Non-Specific Low Back Pain Using Core Stabilization Exercises in Pakistani Population’, Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation, 32.1 (2019), 149–54 <https://doi.org/10.3233/BMR-171114&gt;.

[6] Angela Blasimann, Simon Eberle, and Manuel Markus Scuderi, ‘[Effect of Core Muscle Strengthening Exercises (Including Plank and Side Plank) on Injury Rate in Male Adult Soccer Players: A Systematic Review]’, Sportverletzung Sportschaden: Organ Der Gesellschaft Fur Orthopadisch-Traumatologische Sportmedizin, 32.1 (2018), 35–46 <https://doi.org/10.1055/a-0575-2324&gt;.

[7] Urs Granacher, Andre Lacroix, and others, ‘Effects of Core Instability Strength Training on Trunk Muscle Strength, Spinal Mobility, Dynamic Balance and Functional Mobility in Older Adults’, Gerontology, 59.2 (2013), 105–13 <https://doi.org/10.1159/000343152&gt;.

[8] Urs Granacher, Albert Gollhofer, and others, ‘The Importance of Trunk Muscle Strength for Balance, Functional Performance, and Fall Prevention in Seniors: A Systematic Review’, Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 43.7 (2013), 627–41 <https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0041-1&gt;.

[9] Tomoko Okada, Kellie C. Huxel, and Thomas W. Nesser, ‘Relationship between Core Stability, Functional Movement, and Performance’, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25.1 (2011), 252–61 <https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b22b3e&gt;.

[10] Casey A. Reed and others, ‘The Effects of Isolated and Integrated “core Stability” Training on Athletic Performance Measures: A Systematic Review’, Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 42.8 (2012), 697–706 <https://doi.org/10.2165/11633450-000000000-00000&gt;.

[11] Alyson Filipa and others, ‘Neuromuscular Training Improves Performance on the Star Excursion Balance Test in Young Female Athletes’, The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, 40.9 (2010), 551–58 <https://doi.org/10.2519/jospt.2010.3325&gt;.

[12] O. Prieske and others, ‘Neuromuscular and Athletic Performance Following Core Strength Training in Elite Youth Soccer: Role of Instability’, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 26.1 (2016), 48–56 <https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.12403&gt;.

[13] Matthew Weston and others, ‘Isolated Core Training Improves Sprint Performance in National-Level Junior Swimmers’, International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 10.2 (2015), 204–10 <https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.2013-0488&gt;.

[14] Michelle A. Sandrey and Jonathan G. Mitzel, ‘Improvement in Dynamic Balance and Core Endurance after a 6-Week Core-Stability-Training Program in High School Track and Field Athletes’, Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 22.4 (2013), 264–71 <https://doi.org/10.1123/jsr.22.4.264&gt;.

[15] Anne W. Clark and others, ‘Effects of Pelvic and Core Strength Training on High School Cross-Country Race Times’, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31.8 (2017), 2289–95 <https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001729&gt;.

[16] Atle H. Saeterbakken, Roland van den Tillaar, and Stephen Seiler, ‘Effect of Core Stability Training on Throwing Velocity in Female Handball Players’, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25.3 (2011), 712–18 <https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181cc227e&gt;.

[17] Heloisa Schroeder Martins and others, ‘Effects of Core Strengthening on Balance in University Judo Athletes’, Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 23.4 (2019), 758–65 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbmt.2019.05.009&gt;.

[18] Jennifer E. Earl-Boehm and others, ‘Treatment Success of Hip and Core or Knee Strengthening for Patellofemoral Pain: Development of Clinical Prediction Rules’, Journal of Athletic Training, 53.6 (2018), 545–52 <https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-510-16&gt;.

[19] Brett G. Toresdahl and others, ‘A Randomized Study of a Strength Training Program to Prevent Injuries in Runners of the New York City Marathon’, Sports Health, 12.1 (2020), 74–79 <https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738119877180&gt;.

[20] E. Weltin, A. Gollhofer, and G. Mornieux, ‘Effects of Perturbation or Plyometric Training on Core Control and Knee Joint Loading in Women during Lateral Movements’, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 27.3 (2017), 299–308 <https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.12657&gt;.

[21] Ana Ferri-Caruana, Beatriz Prades-Insa, and Pilar Serra-AÑÓ, ‘Effects of Pelvic and Core Strength Training on Biomechanical Risk Factors for Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injuries’, The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 60.8 (2020), 1128–36 <https://doi.org/10.23736/S0022-4707.20.10552-8&gt;.

[22] José M. Oliva-Lozano and José M. Muyor, ‘Core Muscle Activity During Physical Fitness Exercises: A Systematic Review’, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17.12 (2020) <https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17124306&gt;.

[23] Jason M. Martuscello and others, ‘Systematic Review of Core Muscle Activity during Physical Fitness Exercises’, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27.6 (2013), 1684–98 <https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e318291b8da&gt;.

[24] Atle Hole Saeterbakken and others, ‘The Effects of Performing Integrated Compared to Isolated Core Exercises’, PloS One, 14.2 (2019), e0212216 <https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0212216&gt;.

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