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Core Stabilizers: Rethinking Core Training for Functional Aging - MyZeniverse™ Blog

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

by Emma Mattison – NASM, CPT, CNC and Functional Aging Specialist


*Disclosure: I only recommend products I would use myself and all opinions expressed here are our own. This post may contain affiliate links that at no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission. Read full privacy policy here.


Image of a man engaging in a core stability exercise using an exercise ball, demonstrating alternatives to traditional crunches and sit-ups, as featured in our MyZeniverse™ blog post on functional aging.

Are you wondering if you're wasting your time with your core workout? Maybe you're asking what exactly makes a great core workout. In summary, a great core workout is training more than just the "abs."

In this article, as a certified personal trainer and functional aging specialist, I am going to tell you why crunches and sit-ups are overrated, and not the end-all-be-all for a "core workout."


Why Not Abs?

Ultimately, the "abs," more formally referred to as the "rectus abdominis," are considered a "surface level" core muscle. This muscle that people often tout as their "6 pack," connects on the outermost layer of the abdominal wall from the pubic bone (pubic symphisis), to the tip of your sternum (xiphoid process) and the cartilage of your 5th-7th ribs.


While the abs have their purpose in keeping us upright and in good posture, they have less of an impact than the rest of the core muscles. Some of the core stabilizer muscles are labeled in this image to the right. The major muscles involved in core stability include the pelvic floor muscles, transversus abdominis, multifidus, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae (sacrospinalis) especially the longissimus thoracis, and the diaphragm. Some of the most neglected are the multifidus, diaphragm, and the pelvic floor!

Illustration showcasing the major core stabilizer muscles, including the transversus abdominis, multifidus, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, erector spinae, and diaphragm.

What Are "Core Stabilizers?"


Okay, so now you have an idea of the core stabilizers... but what do they actually do? In summary?

  1. They Keep Us Upright

  2. They Help Us Balance

  3. They Help Us Activate Total Body Surges of Strength

  4. They Help Us Breath (Some)

Let me explain.

Detailed illustration highlighting the multifidus muscle, an essential core stabilizer muscle responsible for spinal stability and posture.
The multifidus muscle helps keep our spin erect, alongside the erector spinae (not pictured)

They Keep Us Upright


If we lacked our core stabilizers, our posture would be horrible! We would slouch forward terribly, and have such bad muscle imbalances that we end up with aches and pains throughout the body from the other muscles trying their hardest to compensate... for a job that isn't theirs! Wait... some of this might sound like you, or someone you know. And that is because the core stabilizers are already neglected in our population. We have terrible posture. We have horrid muscle imbalances. I say "we," but am referring to individuals who do not have the time or knowledge on how to exercise their muscles properly, and using the right training for these endurance-based muscles.

Visual depiction of the erector spinae muscles, the primary core stabilizers supporting spinal extension and posture.


The core stabilizers are very much "endurance" muscles. Meaning, they aren't technically meant for quick power movements, and then they get a massive break... like one would experience with the bicep curls. Core stabilizers are supposed to keep us upright and in good posture all day long, meaning we have to exercise these muscles' strength endurance. What's a great way to do that? Walking? Yes, and no. Walking, with good posture the whole time, but most people can't do that. So I'll explain later in this article other ways to help them out.


They Help Us Balance


Concerned about your balance? Do you have to sit down to put on pants or socks? You may be lacking in the core stabilizer department!


While there are other components that help with balance such as hip mobility, and the general practice of training balance to "failure," the core stabilizers are responsible for the fine contractions and relaxations that help our bodies balance. If you've ever tried to balance with a loose stomach, it will be much harder than when you tighten your core all the way around to your back, with the correct posture! Of course, so many people also hold their breath, and then they start falling over, so you have to train your ability to breath properly during exercise too!


It's worth it to train the core stabilizers to help with balance, since fall risk is drastically on the rise. According to the CDC, as of 2020 there were over 40,000 fall related deaths in that year alone. That number continues to rise due to our sedentary population that lack functional fitness.


Luckily, balance training, and center of gravity exercises such as Tai Chi (pictured below) can significantly improve balance... and in the process, the core stabilizers!

Image capturing mature adults gracefully performing the "pheasant stands" pose in Tai Chi, a gentle and flowing exercise promoting balance, flexibility, and overall well-being.

It's not just balance from a perspective of fall prevention that you should consider -- it's also balance from a perspective of injury prevention. Think about it even from the context of typical exercise training. If you fail to exercise your core stabilizers, and try to perform something like a barbell back squat, you may experience significant instability. That lift to try and help improve your strength could instead result in a catastrophic injury!


If you're interested in testing your balance, by the way, my free course, 5 Steps to Empower Your Fitness Journey at 40+: Craft Your Personalized Program, comes with a balance assessment you can do in your own home! Pro-tip: don't forget to activate those core stabilizers in good posture to improve your balance placement 😉


They Help Us Activate Total Body Surges of Strength


You may be unaware of the incredible power that can irradiate from contracting your core stabilizers... particularly your pelvic floor! The pelvic floor, in addition to helping us prevent incontinence and other accidents, is an incredibly helpful core stabilizer to "awaken" the other muscle groups during compound movements that require power or significant strength.


Let's say you needed to pick up a heavy box off the ground. Simply by tightening your core stabilizers and squeezing your pelvic floor first, your legs and "power" muscles that are responsible for a quick surge of strength will be better activated! It's like revving the engine, so to speak.


They Help Us Breath (Some)

Detailed illustration showcasing the diaphragm muscle, a key component of the respiratory system responsible for efficient breathing and optimal lung function.
The diaphragm is responsible for healthy breathing.

The diaphragm, pictured left, is ultimately in charge of our breathing... or at least is supposed to be. We often "chest-breath" and forget our natural, relaxing breath pattern that uses the diaphragm. This weakens the diaphragm muscle.


A weak diaphragm can lead to incontinence, hiatal hernias, sleep-related issues, and other poor-breathing conditions.


It's not just the diaphragm that helps with healthy breathing though. Being able to "belly breath" properly takes the transverse abdominis, and other muscles of the core stabilizers.


How Do You Train Them?


Okay, now the million dollar question! Training them is actually quite simple, if we remember to include the right exercises. Exercises that require balance can activate the core stabilizers. If you give that free balance assessment a try, you'll safely be able to follow along level-specific movements to give them a try.


However, there are other incredibly useful exercises that can help activate these muscles collectively, or individually.


Dead Bugs

This exercise below is humorously called, "Dead Bugs." My clients love this exercise. The common quote with this movement is that it is, "...deceptively difficult!" Yes, indeed it is. Not just for the core stabilizers, but for the brain! Check it out, this exercise is fun! This one is safe if you had a past hernia repair surgery AND are cleared for exercise. If you have an active hernia, exercise caution, and I'm legally obligated to say to check with your doctor. However, dead bugs don't put too much pressure on the abdominal cavity, especially with the proper breathing mechanics, so they can generally be regarded as safe. If you had a hip replacement, or two, only go as far as comfortable with your knee bends, and don't force your hip into significant flexion.



Abdominal Draw-Ins

Another great exercise is this one that uses the concept of "belly breathing" mentioned early. It's called "abdominal draw-ins," and can be used not only to work the diaphragm and transverse abdominis, but also the pelvic floor!



Ball Plank

One other excellent one uses a yoga ball, and is a variation of the classic "plank": the Ball Plank. You will feel SO unstable when you first try this. Your core stabilizers will wake up. Until they do, however, I recommend trying this in a corner, or with the ball secured against a stable object, or a base such as the one pictured to the left, just to get the feel of the movement first before trying it without some type of security.


Whether you're an avid exerciser or a beginner, this plank exercise is humbling!


In the image below, I am performing a ball plank. This is just one great exercise to do with the yoga ball. Click the image itself to be taken to the blog article where I go over 5 more ball exercises in greater detail, including cautions!


Thumbnail image of Emma Mattison performing a ball plank, a key exercise in her YouTube video focused on targeting core stabilizers with an exercise ball workout.

Show Your Core Stabilizers Some Love!


Key takeaways: Core stabilizers are important because...

  1. They Keep Us Upright

  2. They Help Us Balance

  3. They Help Us Activate Total Body Surges of Strength

  4. They Help Us Breath (Some)

So there you have it! Just a few examples of exercises that challenge the core stabilizers, and why they are so important for our posture, health, and safety. There are many other ways to challenge core stabilizers and improve balance.


Always know that specific health conditions and medications can change our experience with exercise. While it is important to get the exercise you need, it is important to do it safely for your body. This is where I can help.


Ready to Start Training?


If you are 45+, ready for a change in your life – whether you are ready to be a champion of the senior Olympics... or your are simply looking to improve your health through diet and exercise, lose weight, get your balance and mobility back, feel stronger once again, or move freely, easily, and pain free – I offer online personal training & nutrition coaching, and other programs (Online Tai Chi is coming soon!)

Image of Emma Mattison, a highly qualified online personal trainer, functional aging specialist, certified trainer and nutrition coach through NASM and FAI, and a skilled Tai Chi and Dance instructor.


The first step in getting started is to book a free 15 min call with me to chat about your goals, and share your health and training history!



You can also email me at info@myzeniverse.com


 

About the Author

Image of Emma Mattison, a highly qualified online personal trainer, functional aging specialist, certified trainer and nutrition coach through NASM and FAI, and a skilled Tai Chi and Dance instructor.

Hi! I'm Emma Mattison. I'm a NASM certified personal trainer, nutrition coach, stretch & flexibility coach, pranayama breathwork guide, holistic nerd, and lover of birds & music! I specialize in functional fitness for older adults, and those with conditions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. Scientific literature is fun to me, and my goal is to make it understandable and fun for you!


I am driven to share knowledge I find fascinating & transformative with my clients, and the world. Everyone has the power to take their health into their own hands!


My love for fitness and true discovery of health started with helping my best friend – who I can now call my husband! Today, I couldn't do any of this as smoothly and enjoyably as I do now without him! Check out our YouTube, MyZeniverse! He literally edits and films everything. He's editing the next YouTube video next to me right now, as we speak! Check it out, and give it a like if it's helpful! 😊😊

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