Now I'd talk about the "core", which is another one of these over-used and under-defined terms that we hear all of the time in health, fitness and wellness. We must first make clear what it is we are actually talking about. The elusive six-pack is for most people this image that comes to mind when talking about or training for a better core. This is, unfortunately, not at all the same thing as I am referring to and most of the good science shows us, that this is NOT the core we should be focusing on. To make this idea clear, let’s refer to this idea of the core as the “inner core”. If trained and used properly, these are the muscles that help to stabilize our spine, assist with proper breathing, stabilize our pelvic bones and allow for more controlled safer movement. There are basically 4 muscle groups that make up what we refer to as the “inner core”. These are the pelvic floor muscles, transverse abdominis (TA), spinal stabilizers, and the diaphragm.
As you can see, the muscles that make up our inner core create this cylinder around your abdominal cavity which houses your stomach as well as internal organs such as kidney’s, liver and intestines. If we don’t’ have good access to these muscle because of deconditioning, muscle atrophy, motor pattern problems or low back pain, we often times create this much needed abdominal stability through holding our breath and forcing air pressure against a closed airway which we call the “valsalva maneuver”. This unfortunately increases intra-abdominal pressure as well as increases heart rate and blood pressure and should be avoided during exercise routines and lifting tasks.
On the flip side to this, when you start to create strength and stability in these inner core muscles, this will begin the foundation of all other positions including good posture and proper breathing techniques. So the next obvious question is, how do you train these muscles and ensure that they are being used properly?
Let's start with the pelvic floor muscles, which again make up the base of our inner core. These muscles are going to stabilize our pelvic bones as well as SI (Sacral Iliac) joints. To contract these muscles, we start with the classic exercise known as a kegel. These are popular in the world of woman's health especially pre and post pregnancy. Fortunately, we all need to be aware of these muscles, male and female, and make sure that we are using them in conjunction with the other inner core muscles. A common cue that is used to contract these muscles is the sensation of holding in urination or stopping mid-stream. As silly as this sounds, it is quite effective in turning on this valuable muscle group.
The next group of the inner core muscles we want to begin to train is the Transverse Abdominus (TA), which is the corset-like muscle that runs horizontally across your midsection. This muscle is involved with stabilizing our abdomen as well as compressing your abdominal contents during tasks like coughing and having a bowel movement. In order to contract this muscle for training purposes, you should try to lightly pull your belly button towards your spine and notice some increased tone or stiffness towards the side of your stomach.
The third group of muscles that we need to involve in the inner core muscle activation are the spinal stabilizers including the multifidus. These are small muscles that live deep in our back and cross one to three joint segments depending on the fiber. Although small, these muscles play a vital role in segmental stabilization of our spine and are notoriously shut down when pain and or injury is present. These muscles can be a bit more challenging to contract until you get the feeling dialed in. One helpful way to train them and check in on them is to place your fingers on your back, one finger on each side of your spinous process of your low back( the pokey bony prominence that goes all the way down the middle of your spine). This muscle fills the "gutter" on both sides of this bony point. From here, you can imagine you have a string from one gutter to the other (where your fingers are) and you are trying to pull these together. Another cue that can be helpful is if you imagine another string that goes from your low back to your upper back and you are bringing these two points slightly together. These muscles again can be tricky to locate and ensure that you are using them correctly, but you should feel an increase in tone or stiffness underneath your fingers when practicing this exercise.
The fourth piece of this inner core puzzle is the diaphragm. This is a large muscle that sits on top of your abdominal cavity horizontally and attaches to your spine as well as your ribs. It is an important muscle for stability as well as respiration and to ensure proper oxygen consumption. To train this muscle, begin by placing one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Take in a nice deep breath by breathing into your stomach. You should notice that the hand on your stomach moves outward before the hand on your chest. You can the release this breathe to exhale and notice that your hand on your stomach comes inward back to your starting position. Practice this for a few breathes before removing your hands to ensure you are using your diaphragm when breathing.
Now that we have identified and began to train each of the components of our inner core separately, it is time for us to put it all together and make this a functional component of our core stability. Begin this by going through a mental checklist of each of the four muscle groups and the cues to turn on these muscles. Turn on your pelvic floor by holding the flow of urination, your TA by pulling in your belly button, your multifidus by tightening the imaginary string that goes from one side of your spine to the other and your diaphragm by breathing deeply into your belly and making sure your belly rises and falls with each breath. This can seem a bit overwhelming at first, but just like learning any new task, the more you practice the easier it will become. The other important point to mention is when we are using these muscles throughout the day and even with exercise, we don't want to just contract them as hard as we can all the time. Try and turn these muscle groups on at a low grade, about 20% of a total muscle contraction. This will not come automatic to you and will most likely take some refining to adjust down to this place of subtle but steady muscle use and awareness. Practice these for 5 second holds at a time with rounds of 5 repetitions throughout your day. Eventually this will be apart of constant core stability especially during exercise or other lifting tasks.
* Disclaimer: Remember to always consult with your physician or physical therapist in regards to starting or changing your exercise routine and in no means is this information meant to diagnose or treat your injury. For full legal disclaimer, see About Me page.
Author : Jordan Proudfoot
Here are my thoughts and insights into fitness and wellness to be the best you possible.