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Is a core workout the same as abs?

Core exercises vs ABS


1- Core exercises

Lastly, with today’s society being stuck sitting behind a computer for long hours at a time – weak core muscles are one of the main culprits for lower back pain. By having strong core muscles, you are able to provide better support for the spine, reducing the load on the back and making it easier to meet the demands of day-to-day activity. This again can reduce chances and symptoms of back-related injuries.

Improving posture is another key reason for having strong core muscles. Using core exercises to fix muscle imbalances is a great way to get rid of those niggling aches and pains by helping your body move more efficiently. With so many people getting injured due to incorrect lifting techniques, it is important to know that one of the top benefits of core strength is providing the correct support and spinal alignment for lifting heavy objects. This, in turn, will greatly reduce chances of injury.

In terms of sports, core muscles are extremely important. A strong core can help in any sport by providing a solid base and therefore reducing the chance of injury and increasing overall performance. Prime examples of this are the goals of increasing a golfer’s club head velocity and duration, increasing a swimmer’s power and efficiency through water, and hitting harder and jumping higher in volleyball.

Core strength is as essential for fitness as eating is for life. There are many reasons to have a strong core and many ways to do so – some can be more effective and more beneficial than others. Firstly, having effective core muscles will help increase overall body strength. This is because in nearly every movement of the body, your core muscles are being used, which means having a weak core can hinder and limit overall muscle potential in other muscle groups.

1.1. Importance of core strength

Differences between core exercises and abs:

Core muscle strength significantly improves posture. By developing muscular strength, you automatically improve the support given to your back. Strong core muscles are capable of taking some of the load off the back muscles, reducing fatigue. Core exercises should be considered as the protective belt for your back and are more effective than a good posture alone, which also requires muscular strength.

Core muscle strength also helps to improve the efficiency of the peripheral muscles. If the pelvis is stabilized, the surrounding hip and shoulder joints are able to move with greater ease and less chance of injury. If the core is weak, the extremities are trying to move a body part while simultaneously trying to stabilize the torso.

This is working with poor mechanical advantage and will increase the chance of injury. Hence, core exercises are a fundamental part of any exercise rehabilitation of the peripheral joints.
The ability to generate force, a movement for a prolonged period, is the definition of muscular endurance. Core exercises are particularly beneficial in enhancing endurance, in that they enable the trunk to safely and effectively transfer energy throughout the body. This is a factor in almost every sport, and efficient transfer of energy can greatly enhance performance.

1.2. Types of core exercises

These exercises have been shown to elicit very good muscle activation compared to traditional exercises such as crunches or sit-ups. In this study, both these exercises placed very high on the spine compression scale, which is another reason to avoid them. This study showed that although the McGill exercises demonstrated less spinal compression, he believed it was due to the bent knee position. It is suggested that the bent leg exercises raise from the curl-up position place unhealthy load upon the spine.

Although there was minimal muscle activity demonstrated in McGill exercises, it is very important to understand that muscle endurance/stamina does not necessarily equate to strength and stability. Nevertheless, any exercise that has the potential to cause muscle activation in any population of people with abdominal weakness can be used intelligently in a progressive core stability program.

Dynamic core exercises are those that cause the abs to go through a range of motion without losing stability. These are important because the primary function of the abs is to resist movement, not produce it.

Although it is important to perform basic foundational strengthening exercises such as the plank or side bridge, it is the dynamic exercises that are going to carry over to improvement in stability and strength in the core. Examples of some basic dynamic exercises are the dying bug and drawing in maneuver. The more advanced exercises would be inline leg and arm raises.

1.3. Benefits of core exercises

Improved athletic performance.
Functional fitness, which is the ability to perform daily activities with ease, can be achieved through simulating common movements such as vacuuming up a pile of dirt or holding a squirming toddler.
Prevention of injuries, especially for the lower back.
Balance and stability.

If you want ripped abs and can do a lot of sit-ups, but those are only targeting a small group of muscles, primarily the rectus abdominis. Core exercises, however, target all muscle groups that make up the core, which includes all the abdominal muscles plus the lower back and the obliques. This is important because it helps to strengthen and coordinate the weak muscles that are the cause of many lower back problems.

Strengthening the core has been said to reduce or eliminate lower back pain. With the repetitive flexion of the spine that occurs during stomach exercises, it is also important to have a strong core to act as a stabilizer for the spine. It ensures that the spine remains in the same position. This can help to prevent herniated discs and decrease the likelihood of developing any other injuries in the future.

2- ABS

Stabilization and movement exercises tend to be more functional than the flexion exercises and are therefore more relevant to the strength and conditioning of the abs. These exercises involve working the abs as a whole, through stabilizing the rib cage and pelvis as the spine and hips move. A good example of this would be a dead bug, where the contraction of the abs is used to prevent movement of the spine and hips as the arms and legs move. This type of exercise is recommended for athletes, more functional development, and safety of the lower back.

Flexion exercises tend to work the upper abs and involve the action of curling the upper body forward, bringing the rib cage and the hips together. This can vary from simple crunching motions to dynamic exercises with the legs and hips straight and the upper body curling to meet them. Although there is nothing wrong with these exercises, they work the abs in a very short range of motion and have been said countless times by experts to be potentially harmful to the lower back if done incorrectly. This will be discussed in more depth in the section on core exercises.

Anatomically, the rectus abdominis is a long flat structure that extends vertically along the abdomen. Though most well known as the muscle that creates the appearance of ‘six-pack’ abs, the main function of the rectus abdominis is spinal flexion and the movement of the pelvis to the rib cage. Essentially, the abs are used to provide support with movements that involve the back and front, transfer of leg to leg, movements that involve balance and maintaining a steady posture. Ab exercises are usually divided into two types: flexion exercises and stabilization/movement exercises.

2.1. Definition of ABS

In human anatomy, the six-pack is a paired anterior muscle that stretches on both sides of the torso between the ribcage and the pelvis. There are two six-packs, three muscles each. This pair of muscles is usually referred to as the “abdominal muscles”. They extend from the ribcage down to the hips on either side of the rectus abdominis. They include the external obliques, internal obliques, and transverse abdominis muscles. The “upper” abs are from the ribcage down to the belly button, and the “lower” abs are below the belly button. There is no actual separation between the two, but it can be seen by the direction of the muscle fibers. The rectus abdominis is what people are usually talking about when referring to a six-pack. This muscle is a long flat vertical muscle on the front of the abdomen. In those with low body fat it will look like a 6 pack of beer, which is where the name “six-pack” came from. This is what is usually referred to as the “abs”, but the whole core makes up the “abs”.

2.2. Types of ABS exercises

The exercise to improve muscle tone and appearance is usually approached in two different types of exercises: strength training and cardiovascular exercise. Most people believe that the best way to tone muscles is by doing a high number of reps with a low amount of weight. This type of exercise is far more effective for building muscle. It is still possible to get good muscle tone with this form of exercise by using bodyweight as the resistance, however weight lifting is generally considered much more effective. Since muscle cannot turn into fat (muscle tissue will just decrease in size), improving muscle tone is simply a way of decreasing the amount of fat on the body. For this reason, the most effective way of improving muscle tone is to combine the muscle-specific exercise with cardiovascular exercise as this will burn off fat while toning the muscle. This is particularly true of abs, where it is important to have a low amount of stomach fat for the muscles to be visible.

2.3. Benefits of ABS exercises

  • Functional strength is the ability to perform tasks that require strength in a real-life situation. It is the overall strength that is used to perform normal everyday tasks. Core exercises are most functional; they help to provide stability, move, and withstand force in the spine. Any movement that involves the use of the arms, legs, and/or the spine is powered by the center of the body – the core. If the center is strong, the force in the limbs can be effectively translated; if the core is weak, this force can lead to injury. Having a good solid foundation of core strength can help to excel and improve functional strength in all people of different strength levels.
  • Improve functional strength.
  • The core is considered the “powerhouse” of the body; therefore, making it the most important area. When the core loses strength, the rest of the body is affected. A weak core can alter the way force is transmitted and can lead to inefficient movement patterns, which can increase the risk of injury. A strong core will help to reduce this risk in everyday activities as well as in sport and other physical activities. Strong core strength is also very important for static and dynamic balance and can lead to an increase in overall athletic ability. Static balance is the ability to maintain equilibrium in one location, and dynamic balance is the ability to maintain and/or move equilibrium while transitioning from one position to another. These are two skills that are overlooked by many, yet are very important in the prevention of injury and enhanced athletic ability.
Prevent injury and improve athletic ability.
  • Exercises which concentrate on the core are ideal for those of us who are looking to develop that perfect 6-pack or simply drop a few pounds from the midsection. It is not possible to lose weight in one area of the body by training that specific part. But by burning off more calories than we take in, the body will lose fat from all over the body including the midsection. Because the muscles of the core are stabilizers, they play a key role in posture. Diets with or without exercise can lead to rapid weight loss, and weight loss without exercise can reduce muscle mass, as well as tone causing core muscles to weaken. At times, the weight that is lost is muscle and not fat, which can make the body look flabby. This is why some people who are not overweight can still have a fat stomach. By exercising the core, this will not occur, which can lead to an improvement in body posture, as well as a reduction in lower back pain.
  • Benefits of abs exercises:
    To improve appearance and posture.


3- Core exercises vs ABS

When discussing the key differences in muscle engagement between core exercises and abs, we must first define a common type of abdominal exercise. An example would be the basic crunch. This is a floor based exercise where the main purpose is to work the abdominal muscles to produce a six pack. The first key difference here is that the crunch is floor based. A lot of ab exercises are floor based and are sometimes done using machines.

This contrasts with many core exercises, for example, the ‘plank’, which are often whole body exercises and require a great deal of stability from the core to hold a position. With the example of the crunch, the exercise is isolating the abdominal muscles to produce movement of the spine, whereby the core exercises are looking to make the core region more stable. This is not to say that ab exercises are not effective, but it is important to understand that is the core stability that leads to improved performance in all activities.

When it comes to the specifics about what ‘core exercises’ truly are, there is often confusion about what movements specifically fall into this category as opposed to abdominal exercises. Is there a difference? Even exercise professionals often do not completely agree on this question. What is agreed upon is that the core is the “center” of the body and it consists of the muscles that run the length of the trunk and torso. The core muscles act to stabilize the body and produce power.

They are the muscles deep within the abdomen, wrapping around the spine and pelvis. More often than not, people are mistaking core exercises for being those moves that give one ripped, chiseled “six-pack” abs. The truth is, the purpose and function of the core is to provide a solid base for movement throughout the body.

Core exercises are about working the muscles that make that happen. They are the muscles that connect the upper body to the lower body, and front to back. When we hear the term ‘core exercises’ this could encompass a wide range of exercises from the very simple floor based core exercises all the way up to very complex movements that require a great deal of stability from the core.

3.1. Key differences in muscle engagement

The key difference between a core workout and an ab workout is the intended muscle and its relative contribution to functional movement in daily life. The ab muscles (rectus abdominis & obliques) are designed to help transfer force between the lower and upper body while providing stability and balance. They also serve to protect the organs in the abdominal and pelvic regions. This is quite distinct from the core muscles, which are primarily used to facilitate movement.

The core consists of many different groups of muscles, including the pelvic floor muscles, transversus abdominis, multifidus, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae, and the diaphragm. Their main role is to provide dynamic stability and efficient transfer of movement. This is a key difference between the ab muscles and the core muscles. The transfer of force facilitated by the abs is essential to functional movement, but the dynamic stabilization provided by the core is what ensures the force is effectively and safely transferred, leading to load being spread out over the appropriate body segments.

This, in turn, helps prevent injury. To best explain the difference between ab and core muscle usage, let’s compare two exercises: the sit-up (ab exercise) and the plank (core exercise). During the sit-up, the main muscle activity involves the abs and the hip flexors. This is primarily a movement exercise, aiming to increase the strength and endurance of the hip flexors to facilitate hip flexion. However, this exercise has been argued as being dangerous and ineffective at training the abs to facilitate a transfer of force between the upper and lower body. This is due to the sit-up placing too much load on the spine, which can lead to injury, and it has more of a focus on the strength/endurance of the hip flexors. At the end range of motion in a sit-up posture, there is little activation of the abs in comparison to their full potential. The plank, on the other hand, is an isometric exercise aimed at static endurance.

3.2. Variations in exercise focus

This can prove to be quite difficult with just bodyweight exercises, so the best way to overload your abs is with weights, either using a cable machine or holding a weight plate. While a variety of ab exercises is important, the best way to ensure improvement and growth over time is to have a small selection of weighted ab exercises that you can get stronger at.

On the other hand, the primary goal behind training abs is to improve the appearance of the abdominal muscles. Abs are just like any other muscle group and to increase their size and definition, they should be trained in the 8-12 rep range for 3-4 sets. Rest time between sets does not particularly matter, but the most important part of training abs is progressive overload. Just like any other muscle group, the only way to make abs bigger and stronger is to consistently increase the resistance placed upon them.

Core training exercises are any exercise that uses the trunk of your body without support except for the arms and is designed to improve the function of your core. The main purpose of this is to create better stability for your spine and reduce the risk of injury when performing other physical activities. Core exercises are very important for overall health and fitness and can greatly improve sport and athletic performance. A strong core will also help to make performing everyday activities that much easier.

Both core exercises and abdominal exercises are important for having a strong midsection. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of confusion about what consists of core vs. ab training exercises. The most common mistake is the assumption that if you want a strong midsection with a flat stomach, you should train your core and abs the same way you would train your other muscle groups. This could not be further from the truth.

3.3. Impact on overall fitness goals

This can be very disadvantageous to the performance of athletes. Rugby players and other contact sportsmen can poorly affectively transfer and apply the strength gained in this exercise to effectively smashing through an opponent in a game situation. The core exercises equivalent would be the plank/side plank exercise, with much less chance of postural change and improved stability of the trunk and spine. The plank position has, in fact, been used in many physical cultures outside of fitness training as a test of core strength and spinal stability.

On the other hand, abs exercises can be quite limited in their effect on the rest of the body, something which is ineffective during fitness training. For example, when doing ab crunches, the main muscle worked is the rectus abdominis. However, the spine is also heavily involved. This exercise can have negative effects on posture and increased lower back pain, due to the shortening of the abdominal muscles pulling the chest and hips together and the prominent involvement of hip flexor muscles.

While core exercises do help to tone, tighten, and flatten the midsection, they do little for the instantly gratifying aesthetics of a highly sought-after six-pack abs, i.e. the rectus abdominis muscle. These muscles are worked isometrically to stabilize the body during many of the movements in core exercises. The “isometric contraction” is when the muscles contract or shorten but do not move the joints they act on. This can amount to very little change in muscle mass or visual improvement of the abdominals.

3.4. Considerations for workout routines

Core exercises are what I’d name functional exercises. They have a tendency to make use of the body’s own weight or a relatively mild external weight (such as a medicine ball) while specializing in the activation of trunk muscles to regulate motion and resist external force. This could be compared to many belly exercises which involve lying on the ground and using the abs to maneuver the weight of the legs, or an external weight, which is not practical relative to everyday actions and has been proven to position unhealthy load on the spine and pelvis (in addition to much less activation of the intended abdominal muscles).

The results of core exercises is an improvement in trunk management which will have a constructive impact on posture and should translate to lessened pain from certain back injuries. On the contrary, many widespread ab exercises create a large load on the spine and studies have shown that some can cause harm to the lumbar spine. The repercussions from this can be extreme because the purpose of those exercises is often to enhance appearance and thus can have a negative impact on posture and lead to injury.

When considering whether to include core-specific or ab-focused exercises into a workout routine, the most important factor to take into account is the overall fitness goals of the individual. For some people, the primary goal is to improve appearance through weight reduction and muscle toning. For others, the main point is to increase athletic performance. Whether the goal is better functionality or better aesthetics, a discussion with regards to the consequences of core and ab coaching on both posture and harm are important as a result of many exercises may have an effect on the trunk and pelvis.


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