Core training vs. abdominal training- What’s the difference?

April 13th, 2020
Abdominal training

“Core training” and “ab training” are often used interchangeably to describe exercises that target the midsection of the body. However, it is a misconception to think that core training is the same thing as abdominal training. In this post, I’ll explain the differences between the two.

Let’s start with an anatomy lesson. The abdomen, better known as the abdominals, is a grouping of three layers of muscles. The front, first layer houses the rectus abdominis (the 6-pack muscle group) and the external obliques. Underneath the external obliques are the internal obliques occupying the second layer. Finally, the third layer has a very important muscle group named the transverse abdominis. The fiber orientations and function for
each group are as follows:
Rectus abdominus– vertically oriented fibers attaching from the front, bottom ribs, down to the
front of your pelvis. They serve to flex the trunk.
External oblique- diagonally oriented fibers from the lateral aspect of the ribs, down towards the pelvis and midline of the body. They serve to rotate and side-bend the trunk.
Internal oblique- diagonally oriented fibers, opposite of the external oblique, moving up from the lateral aspect of the pelvis towards the midline of the body. They serve to rotate and side-bend the trunk.
Transverse abdominis- horizontally oriented fibers that both look and act like a corset to the mid-section, providing stability to the entire area.

“Working your abs” refers to training these 4 muscle groups. The core is a bit different. This term refers to the 360 degree stability of your midsection. So yes, the 4 abdominal muscles are a part of the core, contributing to mostly front and side stability, but there are many other muscles involved. The ceiling is made up of the diaphragm (an often forgotten, but very important core muscle). The back side has a few, but the most important is the multifidus. Then finally, a group of muscles referred to as the “pelvic floor” provides stability down below.

Core stability is very important for everyday function and control. The core is the grounding from where all movement is performed. Imagine pushing a 200lb box across a floor. This is not an easy task, but with the appropriate footing, it can definitely be done. The task becomes immensely more challenging if the box is on normal ground and you are standing on ice. There is no way to utilize all your strength without a strong base to move from. Whether performing a bicep curl or a squat, if your trunk/core is not stabilized, then the movement will not be performed optimally.

Training each should be approached differently. Core training is best performed through exercises that emphasize a stable trunk. Keep in mind, your core should be active with all of your strength training exercises, but it should also be challenged directly. Exercises like planks, bird-dog, dead bugs, pallof press, etc. are all good options. You could also preferentially target weaker muscle groups of the core to help the entire unit work better together (the multifidus is often an area that falls behind). Abdominal training involves a lot more movement. You are no longer concerned with the group of core muscles working as a unit to create stability. Rather, the goal is to isolate the roles of specific muscles, often for the sole purpose of developing better visual appeal. Only the rectus abdominus and the external obliques need to be considered because the deeper layers are not visible on the surface.

The key to effective abdominal training is to assure your movements are in the direction of the muscle fibers you’re trying to hit. The easiest are the muscle fibers of the rectus abdominus which align in a vertical direction and move the lower ribs closer to the pelvis (or the other way around). Common exercises like crunches and sit ups isolate these muscle fibers. Oblique training is a bit more nuanced since these fibers are diagonally oriented. If you only target your obliques with simple side bending or twisting movements, then you likely aren’t activating the fibers optimally.

By now it should be clear that core training and abdominal training are similar, but different. The core should be active throughout almost all training activities, and the abdominals should be trained to help balance the core and to look good at the beach. Thinking about the muscle fiber orientation is an advanced way to train, but developing this skill will undoubtedly take your training to another level. Share this post with a friend and help educate our lifting community! Contact one of our NJ offices today.

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