Your core muscles are some of the most important in your body. Here's why you need them to be strong.
When you do sit-ups at the gym, what are you chasing? Flat abs or a strong core? You might say both, but they're not one and the same. Having a strong core is more important than a six-pack will ever be. Here are four big reasons why -- and the difference between abs and your core.
Read more: The best ab exercises for a stronger core
To understand just how vital strong core muscles are, it helps to know exactly what makes up your core. Many people think "core" is synonymous with "abs," but that's not true. Your core does include your abdominal muscles, but it also includes the many muscles that move your hips and your back.
You have four distinct ab muscles:
Then there's the group of hip muscles:
Various back muscles also contribute to core strength:
Finally, your pelvic floor muscles -- a collection of small muscles supporting your bladder, bowel and reproductive organs -- are part of your core, too.
As you can see, your core comprises much more than just abs.
And, not to throw another curveball, but visible abs do not always equate to a strong core. Having visible abs just means your body fat percentage is low enough to show the muscle fibers beneath subcutaneous fat. You can 100% have great core strength without having visible abs.
Now, onto why core strength is so important.
Picture your core as a sturdy, stable cylinder around your spine and vital organs. With a strong core, you'd be able to activate and engage that cylinder any time your spine and organs faced danger -- like during a heavy squat or deadlift.
Study after study after study has shown that core strength training can reduce back pain, although some research suggests that full-body strength training would be more effective than core strength training alone (which is probably true).
Research also shows that core strength may be a factor in preventing injuries, due to the nature of core musculature and the spine. Without proper support during movement, your spine is at risk for injury -- the less stable your spine, the greater the risk for injury.
Strong core muscles allow you to keep your spine in a safe, neutral position during movement, rather than overly flexing, extending or rotating (which hurts at best and injures you at worst).
Those looking to boost their physical performance can do so by adding core exercises into their fitness routines. Studies show a relationship between core strength training and improved athletic performance, but more research is needed to clear up that link, since athletes typically train all muscle groups.
Your core is partially responsible for every type of movement, except at the extremities (like twirling your ankle, although if you do this standing up, your core still supports you). Your core muscles allow you to bend, twist, flex, extend, step, jump, sit up and simply stand -- the stronger your core, the better you can perform all of these movements.
The benefits aren't limited to athletes, though. The average person can enjoy benefits from core strength, too, including new personal bests in the gym, logging more miles on the road or trails, and getting that coveted first pull-up. You may also be surprised at how well your newfound core strength transfers outside of the gym during recreational activities such as rowing, paddling and rock climbing.
Do you want to take care of yourself when you're older? If yes, focus on building a strong core now. Even if you're in your 40s, 50s or 60s, it's not too late to add core workouts to your routine and develop core strength.
A strong core is often the difference between an elderly person who can run their own errands, put away their own groceries and play with their grandkids for hours, and an elderly person who requires help on all of those fronts. A strong core represents the difference between truly living and simply surviving in old age.
Research shows that core stability training can improve balance in older adults and reduce the risk of falling (falls are the leading cause of injuries among older adults). One study (PDF) found that just 20 minutes of core training three times per week can significantly increase older adults' ability to complete normal daily tasks such as household chores.
Plus, having a strong core increases your ability to stay active as you get older, and exercise benefits older adults just as much as it does younger people, if not more.
This last benefit of strong core muscles is really a culmination of the above three, but it's worth recognizing on its own. As anyone might imagine, decreased pain, fewer injuries, improved performance and boosted longevity definitely come together for a healthier, happier life.
Strengthening your core isn't just for the future, either. You can reap those benefits right now. If you're young and adventurous, a strong core increases the number of recreational activities you're able to do safely. You can go on tougher hikes with more rock scrambling, paddle board in open water instead of closed canals, or take up skateboarding or surfing.
If you're in middle age, core strength means you can safely play sports with your kids or exercise with your dog. It means you can continue enjoying your favorite hobbies without worrying about blowing out your back; it means getting home improvement projects done without hiring out.
Lastly, if you're past middle age, having a strong core becomes important for daily living. Don't we all want to retain our independence as we slip into our 60s, 70s and 80s? Core strength means you can thrive in old age. It means you can hang out with your grandkids and accompany your family on holiday vacations. It means you can keep being you.