Our core, which we can generally define as any part of our body that is not a limb or our head, is our foundation and more functionally important than we often give it credit for.
While I doubt there is a person on this planet who doesn't want their core to look chiseled and pristine, we often don't put as much value on how important that type of "muscle tone" is in terms of function.
While a six pack looks great, what it and other accompanying core muscles can do for us (even under layers of fat), is essential to our overall health for three major reasons:
Back Pain No More
If you take one thing away from this article, please let it be this: the cost of back pain is too high to not put time in the gym focusing on developing your core.
Is it worth it to be laid up in bed paying the price of time off from your job and of physical pain because of a back injury OR to pay the price of one hour of sweat and physically demanding work?
Sadly, that very scenario is not far fetched either. According to the American Chiropractic Association, back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide and will affect 80% of the American population at some point in their lives.
It is simply a choice.
A choice to take your quality of life, health, and ultimately, your happiness, into your own hands.
Move like an Athlete
One attribute a good athlete must possess, is coordination and control of their body.
When a baseball or softball outfielder throws a run in, a sprinter explodes off the blocks, a soccer player kicks a goal, a basketball player shoots a 3, etc; the core is responsible for absorbing the force that is transmitted by the athlete's limbs.
If their core is weak, the velocity of the movement is decreased and the likelihood of injury goes up.
This same principle holds true for every day athletes as well. When getting your workout of the day in, if your core is weak your lifts and movements will be weak thereby increasing your chance of injury.
The reason there are mirrors in the gym? So you can watch your form and make sure you're doing the movement correctly.
The reason we have an intricate network of core musculature? So you can feel and ground your form.
Use both sight and feel to keep your technique on point for your next workout.
Be a Boss in the gym
Adding on to the last point, your core should constantly be ON with any movement in the gym.
Imagine if I were to come up in punch you in the stomach before you were to lift something, you would brace for the impact right? Well, that same "bracing" effect should be recruited at all times when you are training.
This is especially true when lifting heavier weights (anything greater than 70% of your 1RM or RPE).
A tip I remind my athletes and clients of continually is that, in order to maintain good technique, your form should remain the same from start to finish.
Furthermore, if your core isn't strong, you should not be attempting anything heavy for your own safety and longevity. Don't be one of those horror stories that tries to do too much too soon.
Build your core first, everything else second.
To answer the poll question, our superficial abs (six pack) that we see is our Rectus Abdominis muscle, which looks like eight separate muscles, but is in fact one unit linked by fascia.
Thus, you cannot just target the bottom two "abs" in the Rectus Abdominis, it all works together. Also, we often don't see those "lower abs" because our subcutaneous fat gathers at the bottom first, and is better trimmed off through dietary measures.
Advanced Core Routine
There are multiple resources on this site to help you accomplish building your foundation, specifically check out the Core section under Training.
Below is a video and advanced core routine for when you are ready to step up your game a tad!
The Bottom Line
Like the foundation of a house is paramount to a structurally stable building, our core is equally as essential to develop and maintain before moving on to other movements in the gym.
If you are one of many Americans who suffers with back pain, put down the pill bottle, and go to a gym. It is possible for the musculature around your spine to be supportive enough to where your spine maintains proper curvature.
An exceptional source for healing your back pain is Dr. Stuart McGill, author of the Back Mechanic.* It is a book that I have used myself for back pain, and would recommend to anyone looking to do the same!
Also, be sure to look into the hundreds of free workouts featured on this site, all of which offer proper warm ups, mobility exercises, and workouts of varying intensity and structure.
*I have no stake in the promotion of this book.
(n.d.). Retrieved January 03, 2018, from https://www.acatoday.org/Patients/Health-Wellness-Information/Back-Pain-Facts-and-Statistics
Baechle, T. R., & Earle, R. W. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign: Human Kinetics.