Let’s face it. If you’ve been in the gym for any period of time, you’ve probably heard the following buzzwords and phrases more than once from your coach, trainer, or workout buddies: “use your abs,” “brace your core,” “don’t let your ribs flare out,” and “core strength” or “core stability.” I’ll also be the first to tell you that we use these quite regularly with our members, too; they’re great coaching cues for us.
However, these cues are not 100% fool-proof, and often times people will equate the core with what has classically been known as the abs. There is actually so much more backstory behind these terms and what we’re really looking for.
So what do these terms actually mean? And what are we looking for when we use them? I think it’s time to go a little more in-depth on this topic, and what the core and its functions actually are.
When it comes down to it, what you should know is this: the core is more than just your abs, and your abs do more than just crunches and sit-ups.
When we talk about the core, we’re actually referring to all the muscles that encompass the torso. And perhaps the most important function of the core is that it works as an active stabilizer of the spine.
Think of the core as a rigid corset of muscle. When it functions properly, that corset stiffens in response to a stimulus. This can be a loaded barbell on your back during squats, or heavy dumbbells in your hands during farmer carries. There’s a reason you don’t completely fold over like a droopy flower during these activities, and it all begins with the core.
When people think of abs or the core, what they’re often thinking of is what they see in the mirror. This muscle is known as the rectus abdominus, which is often targeted by sit-ups and crunches for those coveted 6-pack abs. But the core is actually so much more. In addition to the rectus abdominus, other core muscles include the transverse abdominus, internal obliques, and external obliques, although the list doesn’t end there.
Think of it this way. There are several other muscles that either originate from or attach to the torso. This includes muscles like the pelvic floor, the lats, the spinal erectors, and even the glutes. Because of their origins/attachments in the core, they influence its function in some way.
This is why many consider the core to be an important point of emphasis in fitness training; a strong, well-functioning core is almost like a prerequisite for good movement elsewhere else. It lends credence to the notion that we must have proximal stability for distal mobility. As an example, a lifter who aspires to squat deep must have the core stability to allow the hips to express the mobility necessary to do so. You can’t exactly squat deep by mobilizing your core.
Like how the biceps and triceps are responsible for flexing and extending the arm, all of these core muscles have their own specific functions when considered in isolation. As one unit however, they are responsible for stabilizing the spine during static and dynamic posture.
When I think of good core stability or core strength, I think of the ability to maintain neutrality of the spine in the face of movement elsewhere in the body or against forces that would otherwise change posture. These forces and movements can be anything. In the half-kneeling anti-rotation pull below, Dan uses his arms and some thoracic rotation to pull the rope, while the cable imparts a rotational force on his body that he has to resist. Notice how his core stays nice and rigid throughout this exercise:
For those who understand exercise better on the basis of feel, when I do this exercise I tend to feel a slight burn in the front and on the near side of my torso—so mostly rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus, and obliques. This will be different for all exercises depending on the direction of the force, but the goal remains the same—keep the torso rigid.
What should we do?
Keep the torso rigid. This is the end goal of “use your abs” and all the popular buzzwords and phrases that you often hear. Thus, the question now is, how exactly do we do so?
There’s more to bracing your core then just contracting your abs as you would during a crunch. And you certainly don’t want to suck your stomach in like a vacuum cleaner, which is the complete opposite of what bracing actually is.
Instead, you want to think about contracting and pushing out your torso in all directions—the front, the back, the sides, and everything in between. You can try this out and practice by doing the following:
- In your chair, sit up in a tall position.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose slowly, and exhale through the mouth. Practice this for a couple of reps. Done correctly, your chest and ribs should rise and fall with your breath. Your stomach should expand as well, almost like a balloon slowly filling up with air before it is slowly let out.
- After a couple of breaths, instead of letting out a full exhale, hold your air in your torso and think about pushing it out in all directions. Use your hands to feel the front, back, and sides of your core working. Make sure they’re contracting and pushing out in all directions.
- When done correctly, you won’t actually exhale any air; you need it to maintain tension in your core. This tension is called intra-abdominal pressure.
Some like to call this process circumferential expansion or creating a hoop stress. If we understand that the core includes all the muscles that encompass the torso like a corset, those terms begin to make sense.
The intensity of this bracing can be modulated based on the demands of the activity. You can bet that seasoned powerlifters brace harder during max efforts squats, deadlifts, and bench presses than we do just practicing in our chairs. In fact, in the video below of my squat PR during a powerlifting meet, you can see that I don’t release this tension until I’ve finished the lift. Just watch for the big exhale towards the end of the lift:
Doing this right might be a little uncomfortable, and you can see that I expended every effort I had to finish my squat. However, I certainly don’t want you to hold air in until you’re blue in the face, especially if we’re just starting out. Like strength-training, this is something that can and should be practiced. It’s safe to say that seasoned powerlifters have practiced this technique to the point where they can tolerate such high pressures. Most of that experience comes from being under the bar and lifting heavy regularly.
When done properly, bracing buffers the spine against undue stress caused by the forces acting on it, and also helps to efficiently transfer energy from your lower half to your upper half. An easy way to think about this is to imagine the torso as either a block of wood or a block of jello.
On one hand, a properly braced core is much like a block of wood. On a heavy squat or deadlift, the core is very stable and the spine is neutral and rigid. You won’t fold over like a droopy flower because your spine doesn’t move, despite the heavy load. This results in less stress on the vertebrae and vertebral discs.
On the other hand, a core that is akin to a block of jello is the complete opposite. This is much more dangerous for the spine. It’s also much harder to efficiently transfer force from you lower half to your upper half if the core is non-rigid. You might just crumble into pieces.
Finally, a proper brace also puts your body into proper alignment. We spoke about this briefly when we featured the reverse crunch in our Move of the Week. From time to time, we’ve also emphasized keeping the ribs from flaring out, especially in an exercise like a plank or a roll-out, in which you have to do your best to resist extension of the spine.
This is exactly what a proper brace needs from the standpoint of alignment. By keeping the ribs down, you align your diaphragm with your pelvic floor so that you can pressurize your torso and create a strong brace. This in turn allows you to resist extension and other forces better. The angle of the pelvis matters here as well. If someone naturally stands in anterior pelvic tilt, s/he also has to roll the pelvis forward slightly, just like in the reverse crunch below.
Once again, it is important to realize that the core is more than just your abs, and your abs do more than just crunches and sit-ups. A well-functioning core is a prerequisite for good movement everywhere else. Bracing properly keeps the torso rigid and buffers the spine against undue stress caused by the forces acting on it. So be sure to practice the techniques outlined in this article and understand that there’s more to your abs that meets the eye; it will keep you healthy as you progress on your strength-training journey.
by Jeremy Lau
Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach at Halevy Life.
Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and is currently pursuing his M.Ed. in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.
As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his li