Core stability for flat abs and less back pain

Recently, I attended a training where we talked a lot about core stability exercises.

During this conversation it occurred to me that when it comes to core training, we make things way more complicated than they need to be…while missing some pretty vital points.

Today, I’m going to (try) to simplify it.

Here’s the thing. We’ve all heard some variation of the idea that a strong core decreases the risk of back pain/helps you rock a swimsuit/is essential to functional movement.

I’m not arguing with any of this, but what is often missed is how your core works and why core training can help.

So…let’s talk about it.

Your core is made up of 2 units – an inner and an outer unit.

The inner unit consists of deep muscles like the diaphragm, multifidi, transverse abdominis and pelvic floor and it’s primary job is stability – as in it tracks how your spine moves from one segment to another.

Because it’s regulated largely on a neurological level and it’s role is postural in nature, the inner unit responds to low load and low tone and should be pretty much on all the time – gently contracting and releasing with every breath you take.

The outer unit is the big, pretty muscles like the obliques, quadratus lumborum, lats and glutes (yes, you read that right).

The outer unit’s job is to move you and to create external stability in response to force (think a football player being tackled). And as you probably noticed – it’s made up of more than abdominal muscles and is comprised of muscles that integrate your top and bottom half (sometimes called “slings.”)

When it comes to function and performance, both units need to be working in good timing where ideally the inner unit kicks on a hair before the outer unit as you go to move.

But sometimes this doesn’t happen.

If the inner unit fails to turn on, then you can end up with instability and pain, even if your outer unit is super strong. In fact, that’s one reason why a lot of fit people still have back pain.

Conversely though, if you can’t get enough support from the outer unit, then you can still end up with spinal instability/pain/compromised function/hindered performance.

If you’re wondering what this looks like, a delayed inner unit will sometimes look like your abs popping “outward” on an exhalation whereas a weak outer unit that will look like lateral (sideways) shifting in the ribs or the low back arching and curling off the mat when it should be stable.

So regardless of if your goal is flat abs, a faster mile or a healthy spine, core timing matters.

But enough with theory. Let’s talk application.

To create good core timing and functional strength, you want to consider the different ways that you can find your core and how the inner and outer units respond to movement and load.

I like to start with finding and feeling the inner unit (primarily through breath) and then integrating the inner unit with the outer unit through…well…movement…because the second you go to move, your outer unit has to work – though how hard it works depends on the difficulty of the exercise/the load.

Still unsure of what that means? I’ve got you covered with a mini workout that’s all about core timing.

Try it out as part of your next workout (or when you need a movement break) and see if you notice the benefit of more fluidity and ease in your spine!

Core Stability Exercises | Beginner Pilates Workout

Core Stability Exercises | Beginner Pilates Workout

Exercise Sequence

Theraband breathing

Core Stability Exercises | Beginner Pilates Workout

Seated twist

Core Stability Exercises | Beginner Pilates Workout

Overhead reach

Core Stability Exercises | Beginner Pilates Workout

Neutral bridging

Core Stability Exercises | Beginner Pilates Workout

Bird dog


Core Stability Exercises | Beginner Pilates Workout

Hip & arm abduction/adduction

Core Stability Exercises | Beginner Pilates Workout