5 Surprising Things That Happen When You Strengthen Your Core

By Elizabeth Millard, C.P.T., R.Y.T. |

Six-pack abs are overrated. Far more important is the core strength you can't see. Find out why.

senior woman exercising for a story on core strength benefits

Forget transforming your body. The far more important benefits of strengthening your core - the muscles that stabilize your back, improve your posture, and fortify your balance - can transform your life.

Reducing a muffin top is certainly a plus, but in general, adding core work to any exercise routine can be helpful for a range of benefits that translate to moving better, feeling stronger, and standing taller.

Here are three lesser-known advantages of a strong core.

Core Benefit #1: A Happier, Healthier Back

Quick anatomy refresher: Most people think of their core as their abs, and while they comprise part of your core, so do the muscles that wrap around your sides — called obliques — and into your back.

When they're activated and strong, these muscles work together to stabilize your spine, especially when you're active. They also transfer force generated by movement throughout the body, so that you're not stressing just one or two muscles - for example, your lower back.

“If your core muscles are not engaged, you tend to slump forward and pull on the muscles of your back,” says Neel Anand, M.D., co-medical director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles.

"In a way, that becomes an overuse injury, because you're using the same muscles over and over," he continues. "With greater core control, you reduce that pulling and alleviate the stress on your low back."

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Core Benefit #2: Fewer Tension Headaches

The same slumping that might affect your lower back could cause issues in the upper back as well. If you're also adding sedentary behavior to the mix - such as being on the computer for hours each day or sinking into the couch every night - you can add stress on muscles in the shoulders and neck. Cue the headaches.

“We tend to think of tension headaches as only related to stress and anxiety, and while those can be factors, it may also be a body mechanics issue,” says Dr. Anand. “The tension is literal, because you are tensing the neck muscles.”

As you build core strength and create that base of support, you’ll be heading toward much better alignment, even when you’re sitting. That can significantly reduce your chances of getting tension headaches due to neck strain, Dr. Anand says.

Core Benefit #3: More Pep in Your Step

Lifting groceries, lugging boxes to the attic, hoisting a grandkid into a car seat — every day, we tend to do a wide variety of tasks that require our bodies to move in unpredictable ways.

Core strength and stability is what we use all day, every single day, to support the hundreds of different movements we do. If you have a weaker core, you might do these activities in a way that gets them done, but not as efficiently as you could.

When that happens, it's easy to get tired more quickly, because you're putting more energy into task after task. At the end of the day, you're likely exhausted. With a stronger core, you'll be surprised by how much easier these movements can be - and the steady energy you'll have will be a happy side effect.

Core Benefit #4: Better Balance and a Lower Injury Risk

Exercise is what helps maintain balance, no matter what your age, but especially as you get older. Because your core muscles are creating better support and alignment, it causes you to move with more confidence and strength. That can be a big part of improving balance overall.

For example, a study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science on older adults found significant improvement in stability and balance after only eight weeks of core muscle training.

And it’s not just your balance that gets a boost. Research in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons concluded that core stability not only boosts balance but also helps prevent injuries that tend to result from instability, like knee problems.

To get the core strong, you have to think about these muscles as a whole unit, not just the abs. Together, they all play a part in your mobility and wellness.

Core Benefit #5: Reduced Belly Fat

While all of these functional benefits to core strength are compelling reasons to start adding core moves into your exercise mix, let’s be honest — it’s nice to chip away at belly fat.

With core moves that target your entire midsection, you'll be working a set of muscles called the obliques. These run from the hips to the rib cage, and when they're more sculpted through exercise, it causes your waist to "shrink," even if your weight stays the same.

If you’re in the midst of losing fat through other healthy habits — such as proper nutrition, lowering stress, and getting quality sleep — you’ll likely see more results in terms of whittling your middle.

Reducing the muffin top is certainly a plus, but in general, adding core work to any exercise routine can be helpful for a range of benefits that translate to moving better, feeling stronger, and standing taller.

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Try a Standing Bird Dog to Strengthen Your Core

The Bird Dog exercise targets the muscles deep in your core that play an important role in supporting your spine. What’s more, because it works your sides at different times, it can help with coordination.

How to do it:

  1. Bend over and place both hands on the seat of a sturdy chair so they’re directly under your shoulders.
  2. Keep your neck and spine straight and knees slightly bent.
  3. Brace your abdominals and lift one arm and opposite leg until they’re in line with your spine.
  4. Pause, then return your hand and foot to the starting position. That's 1 rep.
  5. Haga 10 repeticiones.
  6. Switch sides and perform 10 reps with the opposite arm and leg.
  7. Repeat 2 to 3 more times with each side.

Brand new to the Bid Dog? Try these modifications here.

Ready for more of a challenge? Try the exercise by getting down on all fours, as follows.

  1. Come to all fours with arms straight, hands directly below shoulders, and knees hip-width apart and directly below the outside edges of your hips.
  2. Extend your right arm out in front of you as you extend your left leg behind you, toes pointed down. Keep your back flat and gaze slightly forward.
  3. Return to all fours and repeat, extending your left arm out in front of you as you extend your right leg behind you.
  4. Return to all fours. That’s 1 rep.
  5. Do 2 sets of 10 reps.

Recommended reading: Take the Strong to the Core Challenge!

See our sources:
Study on the balance benefits of core training in seniors: Journal of Physical Therapy Science
Core stability and knee injury prevention: Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

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