Fitness columnist Kelly Turner provides key tips on strengthening your core muscles.

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The core is one of the most important parts of the body, but it is unfortunately one of the most overlooked and ill-trained as well.

Many think that the abs and core are the same thing when, in actuality, the abs are a part of the core, and the core is a network of different muscle groups that work together.

The core is made up of the transverse abdominus (TVA), which run horizontally around the midsection like a girdle.

On top of those, running up and down the front of the abdomen, are the rectus abdominus, or what most think of as the six-pack abs, and then from the back to front at a downward angle are the obliques.

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When exercising, many focus on the abs, the most superficial muscles, doing hundreds of crunches because they want to see definition there. But when the deeper core muscles are neglected, not only do people not see the results, they are ignoring an important part of their functional health.

The core is the center of the body, the connecting link for all the limbs. Not only does a strong, balanced core keep the spine straight, it works to transfer momentum from the upper body to the lower body, and vice versa.

When you bend (at the knees, of course) to pick up a heavy box then lift it to place it on a shelf, your core twists and transfers the momentum. Someone with a strong, balanced core can do this easily without a second thought. Those with a core imbalance will find it a risky motion that could strain the back.

Engage the core to protect your back while performing basic physical tasks and to make sure you are getting the most from your ab exercises.

To properly activate your TVA, pull your belly button into your spine, then rock your hips backward so the lower back is flat. A helpful trick is to think of your pelvis as a bucket of water, and you want to tip the bucket to pour the water down the back of your legs.

Planks are a great exercise to work every muscle in the core that people of all fitness levels can do. Lie on your stomach with your elbows directly under your shoulders. Lift your hips off the ground so you are balanced on your toes and elbows, creating a straight line from your head to your heels. The longer you can hold it, the better.

During ab exercises where you are face up, your lower back should be in contact with the floor at all times, remembering the bucket analogy. If at any point your back arches and pulls away from the ground, your form has suffered and your core is no longer engaged.

You can go through the motions of any exercise, but if you are not specifically targeting the muscles you need to, you aren’t going to see the results — in the shape of your midsection, or in its performance.

Kelly Turner: Turner is an ACE (American Council on Exercise) certified personal trainer and fitness writer: On Twitter @KellyTurnerFit.

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