By: Krista Hoose

The muscles of the core work to move, support, and stabilize the spine. The core is made up of several different muscles: the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and the transverse abdominis that are anterior to the spine and also the erector spinae and multifidus muscles of the back that support the spine. The primary actions of the core are bending (rectus abdominis), rotating (internal and external obliques), bending laterally (one side of the rectus abdominis, obliques, and erector spinae), abdominal compression (transverse abdominis), trunk extension into standing and back-bend positions (erector spinae), and spinal stabilization (multifidus muscles) (American Council on Exercise, 2013).

When the core muscles are weak, other muscles overcompensate, which can lead to muscle imbalances, poor posture, and injury. Even those who can do crunches and hold planks with ease may still have weak core muscles. Back pain, most often in the lower back, is the most common sign of weakness. Weak abdominal muscles often lead to overcompensation by the back muscles, which can lead to muscle fatigue, spasms, and pain. If the middle back is weak, the ability to push and pull may diminish, causing upper body pain (Jose, n.d.). Weak muscles around the spine itself can result in poor support for the vertebrae and disks. Because the abdominal muscles and back muscles work together to keep the trunk upright and maintain balance, poor posture, poor balance, foot pain, and low endurance in the standing position may result from weakness. The muscles of the pelvic floor are also muscles of the core. Weak core muscles can result in bladder leaks during exercise. A weak transverse abdominis may also cause a slight bulge in the pelvic area (Peak Potential Physiotherapy and Wellness, 2018). Lastly, the diaphragm is part of the deep core, and if the muscles of the core are not engaging, the diaphragm may contract, causing exercisers to hold their breath while working out (Jose, n.d.). Please note that this information is not meant to diagnose or treat but to bring awareness to the importance of the core. Please consult a medical professional with any concerns or questions.

Oftentimes, the core is an area that many desire to “tone up”. The abdomen is one of the first areas that fat accumulates and often one of the most difficult areas to achieve results. There is more to think about than subcutaneous fat that is located just under the skin and anterior to the abdominal muscles. Visceral fat lies above and around internal organs. Visceral fat is of concern because it has been linked to cardiometabolic diseases, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 Diabetes, high cholesterol, and even breathing problems. A waist circumference greater than 40 inches in men and greater than 35 inches in non-pregnant women is a risk factor for cardiometabolic disease (Klein & et al., 2007). This is another reason why a scale weight number and BMI are not the only screening tools used to monitor progress by both medical professionals and personal trainers.

What is the secret to losing abdominal fat and strengthening the core? There is no secret—diet and exercise are the keys to burning fat and strengthening muscles, just as your trainer has likely discussed. Contrary to many unverified claims by some supplements, diets, and ads, there is no “belly fat diet” or quick way to get a 6-pack. Diligent nutrition logging and understanding the macros and calories appropriate for your body are keys to success in terms of what the body consumes. Please consult a registered dietitian or certified nutritionist with any questions or concerns. Incorporating cardio and strength training according to CDC recommendations for exercise are the second piece of the puzzle. A common misconception is that crunches and ab-specific exercises are necessary to strengthen the core. Yes, these do engage the core muscles, but they may not be the answer. Performing core-specific exercises with good form are the result of core strength (Jose, n.d.). Proper breathing techniques are necessary to first engage the core before strengthening can take place. In addition, certain compound exercises often benefit the muscles of the core because engaging those muscles is often necessary for proper form.

One of the benefits of having a certified personal trainer is that he/she not only has an understanding of anatomy and physiology but also an understanding of proper technique to help you perform your best. Work with your trainer to develop that mind-muscle connection and proper breathing techniques to make the most of your workouts. In addition to having an impact on overall health, having a strong and healthy core is important because it affects not only how you feel inside the gym but also how you feel while doing everyday movements such as standing, lifting, and bending.