The six-pack is nice and all, but here's why we really need strong, supportive abdominals.
By Corrie Pikul
Reason 1: It will help you outperform a bodybuilder in just about any sport (except for a weight-lifting competition).
The "core" refers to the multidimensional midsection of your body between the ribcage and the upper thighs, explains Cris Dobrosielski, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. Rippled abs, like those seen on bodybuilders and professional weight-lifters, don't do much to improve your stability, balance or range of motion when bending to the side or backward—all key in throwing, kicking, running and jumping. For these benefits, Dobrosielski tells clients, who range from Olympians to senior citizens, to strengthen the abdominals as well as the muscles above, below, to the sides and on the back (i.e., you need to go beyond the crunch and try moves like these).
Reason 2: It helps you enjoy vacuuming and sex.
These two activities that everyone does at least twice a month (right?) involve a great deal of forward flexing as well as some minor twisting and rotating of the midsection, points out Dobrosielski. Your body is designed to move this way naturally, but it can get stiff over time. If you're regularly using resistance (like hand weights, medicine balls or bands) to strengthen your core, Dobrosielski says that you'll feel more comfortable, flexible and willing when it's time to clean up or get down.
Reason 3: It turns you into a lean, mean, running machine.
When runners tacked on a few extra minutes of core exercises after their interval workouts, their running performance increased by more than 3 percent, found research from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. A strong core keeps your entire body stable while you're pounding the pavement and helps you breathe easier when you're working hard, explains Michele Olson, PhD professor of exercise science at Auburn University. This not only makes you faster, but it also makes you able to work harder with less effort.
Reason 4: It protects this part of your lower body.
An important set of core muscles surround your hip joints and keep the knees properly aligned, explains Olson. When those muscles are weak, the knees are forced to perform double-duty during squats, lunges and running steps—they're recruited to stabilize the hips when their main task should be bending and straightening. This overtaxes the knees and often leads to injury, says Olson. In fact, studies have shown that among people with knee problems, hip and outer-thigh strength was nearly 30 percent lower compared to those with healthy knees.
Reason 5: It protects this part of your upper body
In studies of sports that require overhead arm movements—like tennis, swimming and volleyball—athletes with greater core stability had 53 percent better balance than those with weak midsections. They also tended to report fewer shoulder injuries, which are common in these sports. This is because the power behind their serve or slam came from their entire midsection, not just their shoulder and arm, says Olson.
Reason 6: It will make cycling more fun.
You shouldn't have to worry about a sore neck after a tough indoor ride or a scenic outdoor one. A strong, solid core stabilizes your back and neck, which Olson says, are at risk of strain when you're bent over the handlebars. Researchers have found that doing exercises to strengthen your core will not only help the ride fly by, but it will also help you recover faster from intense cycling sessions.
Reason 7: It helps you look thinner.
You've heard that standing up straight makes you look taller and longer. But good posture requires doing the core exercises that many of us skip, explains Dobrosielski. Strong abs help you bend forward, but if you want to extend upward, you also need a strong back, chest, hips, glutes and hamstrings. All the muscles of the core need to be in proper alignment so that you're not only relying on one muscle to pull you up, he says.