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Abs versus Core: What’s the Difference?

Abs “Abdominal Work” and “Core Stabilization”

abs vs coreAbs Versus Core: What’s the difference?

Six-pack abs do not equal a strong core.

The conflation of ‘abs’ and ‘core’ is something that we see frequently in the popular fitness industry, and this is not always accurate.

Abs, or abdominals or the rectus abdominis, are just a part of our core. But because some of our abdominal muscles can be found on the front of our body, we can see them. And in our very visual (and, frankly, superficial) society, visible abs are venerated because we equate them with a superior level of fitness and strength. And that, often, is just not true.

The visibility of our rectus abdominis is related to how much body fat is in that area, not actual core strength. Our abdominal muscles are more than just the ‘‘washboard’ that we see on the bodies of chiseled fitness models, and it’s possible to enjoy superior core strength  with virtually invisible abdominals.

What is our core?

Certainly, our rectus abdominis is essential; besides looking great under a crop top, it allows for trunk movement and flexibility of the spine. Any ‘crunching’ exercises—such as sit-ups or hanging knee raises, will work the ‘abs’. Whether we need to tie our shoes or sit up out of bed, the rectus abdominis is necessary!

You might be surprised to learn that there is more to the abdominal group than just abs! Read on to learn how each muscle functions and how to target and strengthen them so that you can rock an invincible core!

THE ABDOMINAL MUSCLE GROUP

Beyond the abdominis recti, AKA ‘abs’, there are other major component parts of the abdominal group.

OBLIQUES

Under the abs lies the external and internal obliques. These are a couple of my favourite muscle groups to exercise!

These muscles lie on the sides of the torso and over the ribs. They take care of the twisting and bending movements of the core; so, shovelling snow, reaching both up and down, and shoulder-checking all require the engagement of the obliques. Carrying groceries, even, require oblique strength in order to stay stable and upright. Some of my favourite oblique exercises include standing side bends, side plank dips, and a single-arm farmer’s carry.

TRANSVERSUS ABDOMINIS

The transverse abdominis (TA) comprises the deepest layer of the abdominal wall. The TA has a supportive and protective role for our spine and organs; the TA is necessary for essential “expelling” functions as expiration, defecation, urination and childbirth, as well as acting as a ‘corset’ to support your spine. If your TA is weak, you can run into all types of health problems, such as hernias, urinary incontinence, low back pain, and prolapse.

Exercises great for strengthening the TA include all plank variations—and, honestly, any exercise done with proper core bracing is great for the TA!

If you’re not familiar with core bracing, you can check out an article here that goes in-depth into proper technique. A couple of cues that I use with clients are to ‘brace’ your stomach as if in anticipation of a punch to the stomach. Or, with both hands, place two fingers just to the inside of your hip bones; when you cough or expel air forcefully, you should feel the muscles hardening. That’s the TA and that’s what you want to keep engaged throughout your workout. And when you’re in a plank position, whether on your forearms or hands, think about “locking in” your elbows without moving them as if you want to touch them to your knees. That will engage the TA more effectively—plus, it’ll make your plank a lot more challenging (sorry, not sorry).

THE PELVIC FLOOR

The pelvic floor definitely does not receive as much attention as it deserves; the pelvic floor provides the base for all of our core muscles and is in constant communication with our transverse abdominis, our diaphragm, and our posterior core muscles. A miscommunication between these muscle groups can result in incontinence, sexual dysfunction, and pelvic pain. Without a healthy pelvic floor, we can’t have a healthy core!

There are many symptoms of an unstable or dysfunctional pelvic floor and you can check them all out here. The maintenance of good posture and engaging your transverse abdominis throughout the day as described above can help to stabilize your pelvic floor. If your issue is weakened pelvic floor muscles, practicing squeezing and holding these muscles, such as in the case of Kegel exercises, can strengthen them. Unfortunately, chronically tight pelvic floor muscles are also a common issue, in which case, you definitely do not want to be squeezing and potentially tightening them further!

And what about the muscles on the posterior side of the body?

Yep, the muscles on our backside are also part of our core! The posterior core group includes the erector spinae and the quadratus lamborum.

THE ERECTOR SPINAE

As you might have guessed, the erector spinae (ES) helps to keep the spine erect. These are the muscles that run along either side of your spine from your skull to your sacrum, and which aid in supporting and flexing the spine, and in such basic movements as straightening out from a seated or bent over position, and hyperflexion of the spine (bending over backwards). Weak ES muscles are associated often with chronic back pain.

Some great exercises that can help to strengthen this essential muscle group are planks (yep, again), deadlifts, rows, and just practicing good posture (you can check out our article on maintaining a healthy posture here!). Unfortunately, the ES muscle group is prone to tightness, so a healthy stretching or massage or physiotherapy routine can help to keep your ES strong and flexible.

THE QUADRATUS LUMBORUM

The quadratus lumborum (QL)  is actually a part of the abdominal wall, though it is commonly mistaken for a muscle of the back. The QL attaches from the bottom of the twelfth rib to the iliac crest, as well as attaching to the vertebrae of the lumbar spine. Its essential function is to contribute to the stabilization and movement of the spine and pelvis.

QL pain and strain is incredibly common and can be largely owed to our sedentary lifestyles. As experts understand it, by sitting for long periods of time, the muscles of the back weaken, and our QL has to overcompensate as a result, which leads to painful stiffening and straining. Plus, if you have sustained some damage or an imbalance in your spine or pelvic area, such as in the case of one leg being longer than the other, your QL will often compensate to stabilize, resulting in pain and loss of mobility in that area.

While you definitely want a strong QL, it is difficult to strengthen any muscle that is chronically tight—and in many cases, the QL needs to be relaxed first before strengthening can happen. There are many excellent stretches that can help to relieve tension in that area, such as a simple side bend or child’s pose. Pelvic tilts and practicing good posture (and just not sitting all the time) can also help to relax the chronically-overworked QL.

Are there more?

Some experts would argue that the glutes form an essential core component as they help to stabilize and support our torso, and therefore, our entire body. The glute group has been enjoying tons of popularity on social media, and we love it! If you want to check out some tried-and-true exercises and techniques that will build your glutes and strengthen your core, check out our articles here and here!

Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health!

Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, Certified Personal Trainer and Infofit fitness blog writer.

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