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What’s the difference between working your core and working your abdominals?

The question

What is the difference between working your core, and working abdominal muscles? I think of them as basically the same thing.

The answer

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Your confusion is understandable, since the two terms are often used interchangeably.

Abdominal training refers to exercises that isolate your rectus abdominis and obliques. Rectus abdominis muscles are the superficial abdominals that run up the front of your stomach, often known as the six-pack. They curl the spine forward. The obliques, which run from your waist inward, are responsible for rotating and laterally bending the spine.

The core is made up of the muscles between your knees and your shoulders. When you train the core, the purpose is to train the core muscles as a unit.

A well-functioning core helps stabilize the spine and pelvis. It also improves force production and force transfer. For example, when you throw a baseball, the core helps transfer force from the lower body through the core and out the arm, resulting in a more powerful throw. It also helps with force reduction so you can catch a moving object without injuring the shoulder or spine, as well as promote neuromuscular efficiency.

Physiotherapists will often split the core into outer-unit and inner-unit muscles. The outer unit refers to the large muscles that are responsible for gross motions and force production. The inner unit refers to the smaller muscles that help the intersegmental stabilization of the spine and improve neuromuscular efficiency.

Trainer's tip

To help decipher if a movement should be classified as an abdominal or a core exercise, ask yourself: Is the exercise functional? Core exercises tend to be functional to prepare you for the demands of daily life (the intent of the exercise is not simply aesthetic). Abdominal training isolates individual muscles and typically intends to produce particular aesthetic changes.

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Send certified personal trainer Kathleen Trotter your fitness questions at

The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment

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