What is my “core” and why should I strengthen it?

Jaw-dropping six-pack abs are glamorized everywhere from magazines to Instagram. While these muscles are aesthetically pleasing, most of us don’t know how to properly target the abs for long-lasting results.

Collectively, the core muscles work to provide support for the body as we move through our intense workouts. Training them efficiently and effectively will help improve your strength and balance. Are you sold yet?

Here’s what you need to know about the four key core muscles and how to get the biggest bang for your ab workout “buck.”

The abdominal wall (AKA “core”)


What is it? The abdominal wall, or core, is a cylindrical container of muscles that wrap around the trunk of the body from front → back and left → right. The four abdominal muscles we associate with the “core” are the rectus abdominis, the internal obliques, the external obliques, and the transverse abdominis.

What does it do? These muscles allow us to move 3-dimensionally during exercises like running, lifting weights and transitioning between poses in yoga. Some of these muscles are superficial (meaning close to the skin), which is why you may feel a burning sensation during isolated exercises.

What should I know? These muscles are often overworked, causing strain in your neck and shoulders. As a result, you’re probably mistaking muscle fatigue for an adequate workout. Since these muscles can be elusive, it’s quite challenging to work all four muscles effectively.

The rectus abdominis (AKA “6-pack”)

What is it? The rectus abdominis are a pair of flat, vertical musculature that is most commonly referred to as your “6-pack.” They run up and down the front of the belly from the ribcage to the pelvis.

What does it do? Its role is to flex your spine by pulling the ribcage closer to the pelvis. Often referred to as the “six-pack,” this muscle is Intersected by the belly button which divides the rectus into an upper and lower portion.

What should I know? The recurring problem I see with clients who are trying to tone this muscle is excessive training of the upper portion through crunches, bicycles, and other exercise that lift the top of the ribcage. As a result, there is a disproportionate amount of strength in the upper half compared to the lower.

When working this muscle it’s key to remember that what you do for your upper abs you must do for your lower abs. To condition the entire muscle group try these exercises:

  • double crunch exercise
  • V-ups with straight or bent legs
  • raised knee in tucks w hands under buttocks and chest lifted

External and internal obliques

What is it? Our External and Internal Obliques lie directly underneath the Rectus Abdominis and on the side of the waistline. These muscles run perpendicular to each other and form an “X” on each side of the rectus sheath. The internal oblique muscle fibers run up towards the ribcage and the external oblique fibers running down towards the hips.

What does it do? These muscles are important for any twisting core exercises such as bicycles and plank twists. They are also responsible for all side-bend movements like side plank with hip to ground taps.

What should I know? The best way to target your external and internal obliques is to cross-train with multiple movements. Instead of repeating bicycle sit-ups, try incorporating side bends or mountain climbers with the knee → arm for that sought after hourglass figure.

Transverse abdominis

What is it? The transverse abdominis is a broad band of thin fibers that run horizontally across the entire torso from the ribcage → pubic bone.

What does it do? Unlike the last three muscles, this muscle isn’t associated with a specific core movement. Since it’s located underneath the other three muscles, it plays an important role in keeping the contents of the belly (organs and viscera) in place. As a result, The rest of the core muscles can move the body more efficiently.

What should I know? A great way to tone this muscle is simply to laugh a few times with your hands on your belly. You’ll start to feel the abdominal wall pull towards the spine.

Since we don’t necessarily “feel” this muscle working, we forget its crucial role in providing stability for the body. It’s important to tune into the subtle, yet powerful engagement that it creates before and during exercise to ensure it’s firing correctly.

The biggest take-away here is to mix up your ab workouts, and have some fun! Yoga, pilates and swimming are great additions to your workout routine that will get your core lean and strong.

Emilie Perz

Emilie Perz is a yoga instructor based in LA whose personal mission is to integrate yoga therapies into Western Medicine. Her goal is to pave the way for yoga to be used as a treatment plan through doctors and insurance worldwide.

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