Core: what is it and how can you improve yours?

CoreFitnessWhile core training has become a bit of a fitness buzz word in recent years, many are still unsure of exactly which muscles are involved in our core stability and how to activate them. Hopefully this information will help to provide some clarity.

While most think of core as a tight six-pack or toned abs, but the most obvious abdominal muscles only form a small part of the core, which is actually group of muscles that stabilise the spine and pelvis. Therefore, a core-strengthening exercise program needs to include all of these muscles to be effective. When well-conditioned, core muscles help to distribute the stresses of weight-bearing, as well as improving our balance and posture and reducing our risk of injury.

What are the core muscles?

While the definition of this group of muscles varies between experts, the following list are the most commonly identified. Essentially core function can include additional muscles, such as the glutes (bottom), erector spinae (running from your neck to your lower back), the diaphragm and hip flexors, but for the purpose of this explanation I’ll stick with the primary group.

Deep muscles:

Multifidus – located along the vertebral column, these muscles extend and rotate the spine

transverse abdominus (TVA) – located under the obliques, this is the deepest of the core muscles and wraps around your spine like a girdle for protection and stability

internal obliques – located beneath the external obliques

pelvic floor – This is a sling of muscle running from back to front, from the tail bone to the front of the pelvis. The pelvic floor muscles lift, while the deep abdominals draw in.

Surface muscles:

rectus abdominus – located on the front of the abdomen and referred to as a ‘six-pack’ when visible in lean individuals

external obliques – located on the side and front of the abdomen

Why are these muscles important?

Strong core muscles play such an important role in all movement that without conditioning, you’re almost certain to have poor posture and/or sustain an injury. While they’re important for men and women, it’s common for most women to become acutely aware of the importance of core strength during and post-pregnancy. Weak core and pelvic floor muscles can exacerbate bladder leakage, back pain and even the prolapse of internal organs. The pelvic floor muscles work as part of the core to regulate the internal pressure in the abdominal ‘cylinder’, in conjunction with the back and breathing muscles. During exercise the internal pressure within the abdomen is constantly changing. This regulation happens automatically for most people, however, if the core or pelvic muscles become weak, this may no longer work effectively. Ideally, the core muscles should work together with the pelvic floor ‘lifting’ and the abdominal and back muscles ‘drawing in’ to support the spine. However, when this is done incorrectly (and holding your breath), it causes excessive pressure to bear down on the pelvic floor resulting on strain on the bladder and bowel. If repeated, over time this can weaken ligaments and cause leakage or pelvic organ prolapse.

How to I activate my pelvic floor/core correctly?

We used to think that drawing the belly button towards the spine would activate our core, however, the latest research now indicates that this causes some to tighten their back muscles, draw in the abdomen and hold their breath. This places pressure down on the pelvic floor. To work effectively, the core muscles need to contract and relax throughout movement. Constant bracing can lead to stiffness in these muscles and can be as much of a culprit in ‘leakage’ as weak muscles.

The most familiar function that we all use pelvic floor muscles for is stopping ourselves from going to the bathroom. To correctly activate your core and pelvic floor, it’s easiest to feel if you lie down on your back and bend your knees with your feet flat on the floor. Place your fingers on the front of your hip bones and slide them inwards 2-3cms. To activate your pelvic floor muscles, think of stopping yourself from going to the bathroom. You should feel a slight tightening beneath your fingers and your stomach should stay flat. At the same time, think of gently drawing your navel in towards your spine until you feel the muscles tightening beneath your fingers. You should still be able to breath normally and have a conversation when these muscles are contracted correctly. Once you have mastered contracting these muscles, you can begin to practice in standing and seated positions until it becomes second nature.

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