Why the Elusive Six-pack Abs are Not Essential to a Strong Core

When it comes to the topic of core strength, I tend to get very different reactions about what constitutes “the core” and how to properly train a strong core. As a chiropractor, this topic is near and dear to my heart. A majority of injuries I see in my practice stem from a poorly engaged core.
This article aims to define and discuss the importance of your core, followed by a few simple exercises that help target this area.

What is the core?

Despite what those TV advertisements for the Ab Rocket 2000 may depict, your core is comprised of an intricate muscular system beyond just your abdominal muscles. In an article written by Akuthota and Nadler in 2004, they describe the “core” as a box, with the abdominals in the front, paraspinals and gluteals in the back, the diaphragm as the roof, and the pelvic floor and hip girdle musculature as the bottom (1).


In addition to this group of muscles forming the “box” aka. your core, there are also important muscles that pass through and help play a role connecting your core to the upper and lower limbs, namely the psoas and latissimus dorsi (4).


All these muscles can be further classified as either local or global in function. The presence of these two muscle systems is cited in an article written by Leo Shvyed (3), and classifies global muscles as large powerful muscles that support the spine without directly attaching to it and local muscles that attach along the lumbar spine and help to control segmental stability.


This is a key concept to keep in mind when defining what the core is, and how to properly train it. The author, Shvyed, provides a great example of an individual with a well-defined 6-pack, a presumably “strong core”, who is still plagued by low back pain. In this situation, Mr or Mrs. 6-pack may be lacking efficient local muscular activation to stabilze the lumbar spine, leaving it vulnerable to unwanted movement/dysfunction (3).

What does my core actually do?

iStock_000014714769SmallThe core functions much differently from that of your limbs, which are designed to generate mobility. Throughout the literature, the core is described as a musculature corset, acting to stiffen the torso and prevent motion (4). Being able to stabilize the torso allows energy to be transferred to the connecting limbs to generate powerful and efficient motion. Think of your core as the powerhouse of your body, controlling the force and momentum that travels bottom-up or top down (3).


The very essence of this power begins with something that gets rather overlooked in most fitness regimes- breathing. When you initiate inspiration, your diaphragm muscle has to contract and this sets off a chain reaction of those local core muscles to stabilize the spine. This sequence of muscular activation provides the foundation of postural support to the spinal joints, and must be present before the global muscles can act on the act on the spine and pelvis (3). Studies have actually demonstrated that individuals with chronic sacroiliac pain are more likely to have poor activation of the diaphragm (1). As Simon Kidd, a sports massage therapist put it ‘ a strong box needs a secure lid and hence the importance of the diaphragm in core stabilization’ (5).


Once this segmental stabilization takes place, the larger global muscles will be able to prevent the spine from bending too far forward, backward or twisting. This way, forces will be more accurately channeled to the lower and upper limbs.


Leading spinal health researcher, Stuart McGill, states “proximal stiffness enhances distal mobility and athleticism” and is a universal law of human movement. Take for example a sprinter who lacks proper stiffness through the torso and floor of the core “box” aka.the pelvic and hip musculature. The transfer on energy gets lost at the hips and a decrease in leg movement results in decreased speed (6).


With this example, we can begin to appreciate that core training should not just rely on static movements such as sit-ups and planks. Exercises should put into practice stabilization AND functional movements. Functional movements will help your body learn how to properly engage the transfer of energy from your core to your limbs.


While there are many exercises that one can do to train the core, listed below are a few that are well-known for injury-prevention and help to better target stability in various movement patterns.

Diaphragmatic Breathing:


Lie on the floor face up with knees slightly bent. Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest, just lightly. Focus on breathing using the diaphragm, not the chest, by feeling your stomach rise with each inhale. Let the stomach fall naturally when breathing out, which relaxes the diaphragm. You can progress to placing a small weight such as a book on your stomach and repeat the process. Afterwards try this exercise while standing, placing you hand on your stomach and see how this feels. This is a more challenging task when you move from the floor to standing.


The Dead Bug:


Begin by laying on your back. Bring your knees up to 90° and your arms up, in front of your chest. Make sure you are bracing your abdominal muscles by tilting your pelvis back. Slowly lower one leg down to the ground and at the same time move your opposite arm above your head. Hold for 2-3 seconds. Bring back both your leg and arm to the starting position, and repeat with the opposite arm and leg. Try to maintain your breath by inhaling before you extend your legs and arm, and exhale as you lowering them down. Perform this exercises for 10 times each side, for a total of 3 sets.


The Bird-Dog:


Start on your hands and knees, with your core engaged, by tilting your pelvis inwards. Maintaining an engaged core, extend your leg backwards and raise your opposite arm in front so that your arms and legs are parallel. In order to keep a neutral spine, keep your head down and avoid arching your low back. Perform this exercise 10 raises per side, for 3 sets total.



The Side-plank:


Lie on your side with your body propped up on your elbow and forearm. Engage in your core, and lift your hips off the floor until they are in line with your shoulders. Hold for 10 seconds. Lower back down to the floor and repeat again. Perform 10 times per side for 3 sets. This exercise can be done starting on the knees, then progress to lifting from the feet, followed by raising one leg for 10 repetitions while keeping the hips lifted. It is important to make sure throughout these versions, you are avoiding any rotation in the hips.

The Y Squat:


Start with your feet at least hip width apart (you can step out a bit wider, if you find that more comfortable). Raise your arms above your head and slightly in front, with palms facing forward. Engage in your core by tucking your tailbone down and in. Sit your hips back and bend your knees. Try to squat as far down as you can while still being able to keep your feet planted on the ground and maintaining your arms in line with your head.
It is important to avoid arching your back too much to keep your arms in a Y position. As well, to keep your knees from falling inward, imagine pulling the floor apart between your legs as you are squatting up and down.
At the bottom of your squat, drive your heels into the ground and squeeze your buttock muscles to help push you up, as you straighten your legs to a standing position. Perform 10 repetitions of this exercise, for 3 sets.
You can progress this exercise by adding in dumbbells. Hold the dumbbells upright lightly rested on the shoulders.


Dr. Nicole Barry, DC

Nicole Barry ChiropractorDr. Nicole Barry completed her Bachelor of Arts in Kinesiology with Honours at Western University in London, Ontario. She then continued on to Toronto to successfully obtain her Doctor of Chiropractic at the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College.

  1. Akuthota V, Nadler SF. Core strengthening. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 2004;85(3 Suppl 1):S86-92. http://www.alexandrelevangelista.com.br/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/treinamento-de-forca-para-os-musculos-do-core2.pdf
  2. Body Balance. The Difference Between Abs and Core, 2012. https://bodybalance4you.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/the-difference-between-abs-core/. 09/05/2015.
  3. Leo Shveyd. “Core Composition and Function: The Core of 2014 Part 1”. Function Movement Screen. FMS Fitness, 03/03/2014. http://www.functionalmovement.com/articles/Fitness/2014-03-03_core_composition_and_function_the_core_of_2014_part_1. 09/05/2015.
  4. McGill S. Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention. National Strength and Conditioning Journal 2010; 32(3): 33-46
  5. Simon Kidd. “How to Activate Your Diaphragm to Improve Breathing and Performance”. Breaking Muscle. http://breakingmuscle.com/cycling/how-to-activate-your-diaphragm-to-improve-breathing-and-performance. 09/06/2015
  6. Stuart McGill. “Why Everyone Needs Core Training”. Perform Better, 2015. http://www.performbetter.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/PBOnePieceView?storeId=10151&catalogId=10751&pagename=438



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