Fleshing out the Buzz about your Core!
Many people equate core strength to chiseled washboard abs. While toned tummies are pleasing to the eye and make for pleasant beach time decoration…having a six-pack is not the same thing as having a strong core.
The spine and pelvis are controlled and moved by two distinct muscular systems: Global Mobilisers and Local Stabilisers. The function of “mobilising” muscles is to contract in order to cause movement, such as is required to propel the body forward, throw a ball or to change body position. Some examples of Mobilizers are Hamstrings and Hip Flexors. Conversely, Stabilising muscles function to provide stability in the joints during dynamic movement. Generally speaking, Mobilizers have the tendency to become overactive, and Stabilisers have a tendency to become inhibited.
There are many muscles which span the abdomen. Your Rectus Abdominus (the sexy six-pack muscle), External Obliques and your Erector Spinae muscles are all mobilisers and cause movement on contraction. When you contract your Rectus Abdominus you either flex your trunk forward towards your pelvis or tilt your pelvis back to flatten your lower back. Mobilisers are fast twitch muscles, which means they do not have the same potential for endurance as slow twitch stabilising muscles. By implication, this means that you cannot rely on mobilisers to hold your body in line all day long or throughout your exercise routine as they will fatigue, affecting your posture and leading to compensatory patterns.
Other muscles that span your mid-drift section do not have much effect on movement and are the unsung heroes of spinal stabilisation. They form the group of muscles that need to be isolated, strengthened and conditioned in order to achieve the ever elusive “Core Strength”. Sadly, they are also the group of muscles who’s strength is not displayed outwardly on the cover of magazines, though their function far outshines their hidden face!
The Transverse Abdominis, Multifidi and the muscles of the Pelvic Floor are your core muscles. They are the muscles responsible for “stiffening” the spine to provide stability during movement and for feeding valuable proprioceptive information (information about joint position sense) to your brain. The Transverse Abdominis wraps around your abdomen like a corset, just like a tight corset in a woman’s dress prevents movement, so a tight contracted Transverse Abdominis stiffens the spine and provides stability.
The key to a great functioning core is all about timing! In order to provide stability during movement, the core stabilising muscles have to contract prior to the global mobilising muscles (This pre-contraction of the core is aptly known as “Bracing”). Your muscles need to contract from the inside out to give the body a stable foundation from which to produce movement. The problem in the majority of people is not only weakness in the core muscles, but a lack of coordination or “inhibition” of these muscles.
The first step in training your core is learning how to find it! Our bodies are much smarter than we give them credit for, and if you cannot correctly isolate your core muscles, your body will find a way to cheat. If your core is inhibited, your body will recruit mobiliser muscles in order to do the core exercises…thus perpetuating the problem of overactive mobilisers and under active stabilisers… even though you think you are training your core!
The proof is in the pudding when it comes to the core! People with good core function can easily isolate and contract the deep transverse abdominus, whereas those with core inhibition find it nearly impossible!
Here’s the easiest way to try isolate your inner abdominal muscle yourself:
- In a standing position, or sitting up straight, place each index finger on the prominent bone which sticks out near your belt line.
- Slide your fingers up about 1.5-2 cm.
- Cough. The muscle you feel bulging against your fingers is your TA.
- Keep your teeth together and let your lips relax
- Place your tongue against the front of your teeth.
- Now take a regular inhalation and then exhale until all the air leaves your lungs while pressing your tongue against your teeth.
- If you are doing everything correctly, you should feel the same bulge (but more gradual and less forceful) against your fingers as you did when you coughed.
This is a nice tool to use to find your Transverse. Once you know where it is, try to start contracting it at will to reteach your brain where it is. You should be able to uncouple it from your breathing, and eventually, you will have activated it enough to start building strength and endurance. Once you reach this point you can start incorporating this “bracing contraction” into every form of exercise you do!! Generally, this is done in stages to re-educate your brain about the correct timing of core contraction, starting with adding pelvic tilts and then arm and leg movements (as done in the superman).
While all this training seems like a lot of hard work and effort, studies have shown that inhibited core muscles have a strong association with lower back pain; and suggest that a well-trained core may actually decrease the likely hood of developing painful lower back syndromes! Furthermore, a well-conditioned core lays the foundation for healthy, strong, coordinated movement patterns in the body allowing you to move better and enjoy your body the way you should!
Find your core and get contracting!
Move Well. Live Well.