How to Build Abs and Core Strength

The term “core strength” is often used by health and fitness professionals, but what does it really mean? Is working on building “six pack” abs the same as developing your core strength? Is there more to our core than just abs? And why is focusing on your core so important? Does it help you lose weight? Does it make you fitter?

Why Build Your Core Strength?

Building your core strength is vital for exercising and performing everyday activities.

Whether you’re carrying groceries, tying your shoelaces or serving a tennis ball, a strong core, is extremely useful - even more so than abs. It reduces the risk of injury, improves your balance and posture, and can help increase power and strength in other muscles by acting as a strong base. Sounds good to us!

So What Is Our Core And How Is It Different To Our Abs?

To put it in simple terms, if you ignored your arms, legs and head, what you’re left with is your core! The main difference between your core and your abs (or rectus abdominal muscles), is that the core covers all the muscles in the abdominal area that are responsible for functional strength and stabilising.

Your core is made up of two key areas – the inner and outer core.

The inner core comprises the diaphragm, muscles of the pelvic floor, as well as the multifidus and transverse abdominus. This group is responsible for stabilising the trunk of the body.

The outer core is made up of the superficial muscles that you can actually see. These are the rectus abdominus, the inner and outer obliques, and the erector spinae. This group of muscles generally controls strength and range of movement, and helps you with stability.

Building Abs – Common Misconceptions

Research has shown that the best exercises for abs don’t focus exclusively on the abdominal muscles but instead work the entire core. If you’re looking to lose weight in the stomach area and build more defined abs, you will need to introduce cardio into your routine to burn the abdominal fat first.

Many people make the mistake of only focusing on their abdominal muscles in the hope of achieving six pack abs. Unfortunately, by merely performing hundreds of crunches and sit-ups, you are excluding other more efficient exercises which better help to tone and build up the abdominal area.

Health and fitness professionals commonly recommend performing alternative core-stabilisation exercises. These are made up of exercises that strengthen the abs and trunk, and work to improve abdominal muscular fitness. Completing these core exercises, as opposed to crunches and sit-ups, helps strengthen, tone and build the underlying abdominal muscles, resulting in noticeably stronger abs!

We Use Our Core Every Day!

You may not realise it, but you use your core every day whether you’re at work, at home, or you’re training or playing sport.

By developing a strong core, we are training the muscles in our back, hips, pelvis and abdomen to help perform our daily activities, reducing the risk of injury and creating better balance and posture.

Examples of everyday activities requiring core strength:

  • Turning to look behind you, sitting in a chair or standing.
  • Performing jobs at work that require twisting, lifting and standing, as well as everyday tasks such as sitting at your desk, typing and answering the phone.
  • Sports such as golf, tennis, running, walking, swimming, rowing and cycling.
  • Housework requires your core for bending, lifting, reaching and scrubbing when performing chores.

The Benefits Of A Strong Core

A healthy back – Complaints of lower-back pain are becoming more and more prevalent. Research shows that having a strong core can reduce back pain. Weak and unbalanced core muscles causes the back to lose its correct lumbar curve and healthy posture.

Good posture – Strong core muscles prevent you from slouching, which puts less wear and tear on your spine and allows you to breathe deeply. The biggest benefit of core training is that it helps develops functional strength – the type of fitness that is essential for daily living and regular activities including standing and walking.

Improved athletic performance – All powerful movements originate from the centre of the body out. Strong core muscles stabilise the spine from the pelvis to the neck and shoulder allowing the transfer of power to the arms and legs. Before any powerful, rapid muscle contractions can occur in the extremities, the spine must be solid and stable and the more stable the core, the more powerfully the muscles in the extremities can contract.

Core Strength Test

Before you start training, it’s important to get a gauge on your core strength. That way you can figure out which program is best for you to follow and you can accurately monitor your improvements. At 12WBT we use the planking test as an indicator of core strength.

The Plank Test

This easy plank test will help you determine your current core strength and help you decide on a core strength program.

Try to complete this test next to a mirror, or have someone watch you, to ensure you maintain the correct planking posture throughout the test.

Step 1: Lay face down on the floor, place your elbows directly under your shoulders and avoid hunching them towards your ears.
Step 2: Draw the belly up and tighten it. Keep breathing steadily and easily.
Step 3: Raise your body up off the floor and lengthen your neck, pull your chin in, and look at your hands. Your body should be straight like a plank of wood, so your hips should be just slightly lower than your shoulders.
Step 4: Tuck your tailbone under very slightly by clenching your butt cheeks together and tilting your hips slightly forward.
Step 5: Once you’re in this position, start the stopwatch.

Results (based on knees only):

Beginner: 30 seconds or less, on the knees
Intermediate: 30–60 seconds, on knees
Advanced: 60 seconds plus, on knees

Core Training

To enhance our everyday twisting, bending and lifting, it is best to focus on functional core training. This involves doing as many of those twisting and reaching-style moves as well as the traditional crunches and sit-ups!

Building our core is so important that 12WBT programs generally dedicate one day per week to core and flexibility training. This specific training tactic is then complemented with smaller core muscle sessions on other days. It’s so important to work your core!

Best Exercises

Our favourite specific core exercise is the plank, followed closely by:

Side plank

  • Lie on your side with your feet stacked on top of each other, and your upper body propped up on your forearm.
  • Place the non-support arm either on your hip, or straight up in the air.
  • Tighten your core and drive your hips off of the ground, trying to bring your body into as straight a line as possible (from your feet to your shoulders).
  • Maintain the hold for the prescribed time. Tip: Do not look down at your feet, hips, or anything for that matter. Place neck in neutral alignment as if though you were comfortably standing.

Bicycle crunch

  • Lie on your back with your hands behind your head and your fingers interlocked.
  • Pull your knees up so your feet are in air.
  • Lift your head up and touch your right elbow to the left knee while pulling your leg up towards your head.
  • Now do the opposite with left elbow and right knee.

Back extensions

  • Lie on your stomach, face down.
  • Place your arms straight out in front of you with your palms down.
  • Make sure your legs are straight out behind you.
  • Pull your abs in, away from the floor.
  • Lift your left arm and right leg about an inch off the floor, and stretch out as much as you can.
  • Hold this position for five slow counts and then lower your arm and leg back down.
  • Repeat the same move with your right arm and left leg.
  • Continue alternating sides until you complete the set.

Easy Ways to Improve Your Core Strength

Use it! The best way to notice a difference in your core strength is by regularly working on it. Forget spending hours and hours every week on core exercises, performing short but regular workouts is fine. Start scheduling core work into your weekly exercise plan today!

Think about it! Think about switching on your core muscles all day, every day. The more you think about using these muscles, the more they will naturally start switching without you noticing. Next time you’re standing in line at the supermarket, suck it in! Or sitting at your desk, suck it in!

Try a core class – most gyms offer classes such as Pilates or core-strengthening classes such as CXWORX or Group Core. Being trained by professionals is a great way to learn how to activate these muscles properly so that you can start doing them on your own and maximising your workout sessions. Don’t worry if you can’t get to the gym, there are plenty of Pilates-based and core work DVDs available.

Grab a stability ball – these large inflatable balls are designed to improve balance while targeting specific muscle groups. You can use it at home or in the gym to challenge balance, stability and torso strength.

Remember: If you’re experiencing lower-back issues, see a physiotherapist or a Pilates specialist for a tailor-made program with specific core exercises that target your problem areas and build strength.

The Research

Research shows that most people’s workout plans focus on aerobic and muscular fitness. However, by omitting essential core exercises from your routine, you are missing out on the benefits of a well-rounded fitness program.

Try including Pilates in your workouts. Pilates focuses on activating and stabilising the muscles of the trunk and lower back and is frequently recommended for people with lower-back pain.

A recent study showed that middle-aged men and women who took part in two 60-minute Pilates sessions per week, for 12 weeks, showed significant increases in abdominal endurance, hamstring flexibility and upper-body muscular endurance. The results also showed that the group was able to perform significantly more sit-ups and push-ups than the control group. Pilates works!

Classes such as Pilates, yoga and dance have traditionally been female disciplines with women still outranking men in participation numbers. It’s time to start closing the gap. Grab your brother, husband or boyfriend and sign up for a class today!

Make Core Strength Your Priority

Once your core strength starts to improve, you'll notice all the other benefits that come with it – less back pain, better posture, improved strength, tighter abs, more tone in the chest and shoulders, and a noticeably conditioned core area.

It provides and enhances balance and stability, which help to prevent falls and injuries. In fact, a strong, flexible core underpins almost everything that we do! So what are you waiting for – get down and get planking right now!