The Core. How many times have you heard to “engage your core” or “you need to work on your core strength.” Probably all great advice, but what the heck does that mean anyway? And how in the world do you do it?
Your “core” can mean a lot of different things to different people, and when most people hear it they just think of abs and working on your six pack. And while that might be one component to great core strength, we are going to break it down a bit further.
I like to think of two main categories for your core muscles: the local core and the global core. Your local core sits very close to your spine and its main job is to help stabilize your joints segment to segment. Your global core sits over the top of this and while it can also be vital for ensuring strength and stability in your back and hips, the muscles of your global core also serve to move your bones in relation to one other (for example moving your leg, flexing or extending your spine, or rotating your body). Ideally, these two layers work together in a coordinated way so that micro movements of your joints that can lead to problems over time are minimized while you are still able to move your body.
It seems like a little too much attention is given to the big “sexy” muscles you show off in a swimsuit and much less is known about the little guys underneath, so we are going to focus on the core of your core, your local stabilizers.
Think about this local core as a cylinder, similar to a soup can sitting in the middle of your body. The top of this cylinder is your diaphragm, the bottom of the can is your pelvic floor, the front and sides are your transverse abdominis, and the back is your multifidus.
I know, I know. Big scary sounding words. Stick with me and let’s go through one at a time.
Your diaphragm is the muscle that sits like an umbrella toward the bottom of your rib cage. It is responsible for breathing which, while SUPER important, we aren’t going to spend too much time on today. If you want to read more about how and when to breathe during exercise, check out this previous post on the ins and outs of breathing during exercise.
Let’s next go to the front and sides of your core, your transverse abdominis (or transverse abdominal). I recently heard this muscle referred to as the “spanx of your core” which I not only found hilarious but true. This muscle is expansive, wrapping from one side of your spine, allllllll the way around your belly, and to the other side of your spine. It goes as low as your pelvis and as high as your rib cage. It sits underneath the other three layers of your abdominal muscles (your six pack and your obliques), sitting closest to the spine. When it contracts, it draws your midsection inward, like you are cinching up a corset or a big belt. If you think of this as the label around your soup can, you can imagine how it really wraps around your whole body, and engaging the muscle would be like shrink wrapping it in towards the side of the can.
TRY IT: The easiest place to feel if you are turning on your transverse abdominis correctly is lying on your back with your knees bent. Find the front points of your pelvis (your ASIS) and then drop your fingers just up and in from those to the soft part of your belly. When you are completely relaxed, you should be able to press down easily with no resistance. Now, think of drawing in your transverse abdominis. If you do it correctly, you should feel just a minor tensing underneath your fingertips, without your muscle popping your fingers out of that space. You should also not be moving any bones. Your pelvis shouldn’t be tipping, your ribs shouldn’t be clamping down, and you shouldn’t be gripping your bum, neck, or anything else. Even though the muscle covers a lot of ground, the main sensation should be below your belly button and between your hip bones in the front.
Next up is your pelvic floor, or the bottom of your cylindrical core. Another extremely important muscle that is rarely talked about due to the squirmy-ness of talking about “down there.” But guess what? It is a muscle like any other muscle in your body and it is important to be able to use and control it appropriately. This muscle sits in the bowl of your pelvis and supports all of your organs from below. It also has a role in using the bathroom, intercourse, annnd your core stability. While there are a lot of specific ways to handle pelvic floor dysfunction, we are going to just go over the basics of activating it in the first place.
TRY IT: Start in a comfortable seated position. Imagine a diamond shape below you with your pubic bone at front, your tailbone in the back, and your two sitz bones (the bones you feel when you wiggle around from side to side) making up the two sides. Now, think of drawing those four points towards each other and slightly up into your body like an elevator rising up into the middle of your body. You should again feel a little tensing of muscles without moving any bones or squeezing any bigger muscles like your glutes. To check if you’re on the right track, go back to the position on your back where you felt your transverse abdominis. With your fingers in the same place (just to the insides of your hip points), try to engage your pelvic floor again. You should feel the same sort of tension underneath your fingertips as before. These two muscles interconnect somewhat and so you can feel some contraction in your transverse abdominis when just focusing on your pelvic floor.
Last but not least is the back part of your core which is made of your multifidi muscles. These sit in the gutters just to the side of your spine. They are a collection of little muscles that each span just a few vertebrae, going from your low back all the way up to your neck. (We generally focus on the ones in your low back however since there aren’t a lot of larger muscles lying over the top.) These muscles help maintain your stability at the segmental level since they sit so close to the spine and only span a few joints each.
TRY IT: Start on your stomach and if you have the shoulder mobility to do so, reach behind you to bracket your fingertips around your spine in the low back area. You can start by just seeing if you are able to contract any muscles underneath your fingertips. If you have no idea how to do that, maybe try one or two of these images to help you get the idea:
* Imagine you have a tail extending from your tailbone and you are lifting it up to the sky. (Careful not to actually tilt your pelvis when you do this)
* Think of shoelaces crossing over your low back. Tighten them up.
* Think of a thermometer lying along your spine. Slowly try to draw the mercury up your back toward your head.
* Almost go to lift one leg at a time off the ground. You may feel the opposite side multifidi engage.
Still not getting it? Don’t worry too much. This is probably the hardest concept for most people to get since we are rarely aware of the little muscles that sit along our spine. Plus, if you are currently experiencing back pain, the muscles have a harder time activating. Keep working on it and eventually your body should catch up with what your mind is telling it!
Keep in mind that all of these muscles work together to stabilize you and in a perfectly functioning body, should come on without you actually having to think about it. However, if you are consciously activating your core either to make sure it is coming on appropriately or because you are suspicious there is some dysfunction in how your muscles are working together, these muscles should come on BEFORE you do an actual movement and only at about 20-30% of your maximal contraction. The idea is that your local core controls micro movements in your body that can become the source of pain or injury while you are still moving your body overall either during exercise or life in general.
So there you have it! Your core! Use it wisely and use it often!