Are abs really useful?
In this article, we address how to become a functional and strong human, as opposed to being another of the overrated endless rants on chiseled abs. So, we must first identify the core and what it looks like. In this diagram, we see the external musculature of the human body.
Our core has three-dimensional depth and functional movement in all three planes of motion. Many of the muscles are hidden beneath the exterior musculature people typically train. The deeper muscles include the transverse abdominals, multifidus, diaphragm, pelvic floor, and many other deeper muscles.
What the Core Does
Your core most often acts as a stabilizer and force transfer center rather than a prime mover. Yet consistently people focus on training their core as a prime mover and in isolation. This would be doing crunches or back extensions versus functional movements like deadlifts, overhead squats, and pushups, among many other functional closed chain exercises.
By training that way, not only are you missing out on a major function of the core, but also better strength gains, more efficient movement, and longevity of health.
We must look at core strength as the ability to produce force with respect to core stability, which is the ability to control the force we produce. According to Andy Waldhem in his Assessment of Core Stability: Developing Practical Models, there are "five different components of core stability: strength, endurance, flexibility, motor control, and function".
Without motor control and function, the other three components are useless, like a fish flopping out of water no matter how strong you are or how much endurance you have.
It is important to first achieve core stability to protect the spine and surrounding musculature from injury in static and then dynamic movements. Second, we want to effectively and efficiently transfer and produce force during dynamic movements while maintaining core stability. This can include running, performing Olympic lifts, or picking up the gallon of milk far back in the fridge while keeping your back safe. Research has shown that athletes with higher core stability have a lower risk of injury. This is proven perhaps most effectively by the Functional Movement Screen.
There is a multitude of various tests that measure core stability, but I consistently use and recommend the FMS because of the research results and effectiveness of the corrective strategies.
Trunk Stability Pushup Test
For the purpose of self-evaluation, we will conduct a simple pass/fail version of the screen (this is different than the standard FMS test, but we will use positions that represent a "2" in that system). First begin in a prone pushup position, with toes tucked under, lying flat on the ground. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart. Men will have the palms of their hands in line with their chin and women in line with their clavicle (collar bone). In a single motion, perform a pushup while maintaining a completely straight body. For evaluative purposes, you may use a dowel rod or PVC pipe to asses maintaining a solid core and straight body, as shown below.