There is a lot of talk about “the core”, and just as much confusion. In functional anatomical terms what are we talking about when we discuss the core, why is it important, and how do we access it?
When we talk about the core we typically are referring to the collection of muscles that surround and support the abdominal region, and that stabilize the spine. These muscles include all of the abdominal muscles, the posterior spinal muscles, the pelvic floor muscles, and the diaphragm.
When these muscles are strong, flexible, and working together in a coordinated manner we experience greater strength, ease of movement, and vitality. It is when these core stabilizers become imbalanced with each other that we can get into trouble and begin experiencing dys-function and possibly pain. Your spine is naturally curved in a gentle S-curve when viewed from the side. This curve allows your body to evenly distribute body weight and provide shock absorption as you move through your daily live. If your “core” muscles become overly weak, strong, flexible, tight, or are not working together in a coordinated manner the curves in your spine can begin to distort leading to degeneration, pain, and eventual decreased functional abilities.
There is no one, (or two or three…) magic exercise for the core. The first and most important step is to bring your awareness to your core muscles and learn to engage them in a balanced and coordinated manner. Here are a few of my favorite approaches to do just that:
- Table push downs: Sitting in front of a table with your feet resting flat on the floor, and your hands on top of the table palms down, focus keeping your elbows in at your sides and your shoulders down as you press your hands down into the table. Exhale as you push down and hold for a count of three, and then relax. As you do this you should feel a gentle tightening and drawing in of your lower abdomen. This is your TVA (transversus abdominis) which is your deepest abdominal muscle. The great thing is that when ever you engage your TVA your pelvic floor muscles are engaged also, so this is a 2 for 1!
(It has been estimated that the contraction of the TVA and other muscles reduces vertical pressure on the intervertebral discs bays as much as 40%. *Hodges P.W., Richardson C.A., Contraction of the abdominal muscles associated with movement of the lower Limb. Physical Therapy. Vol. 77 No. 2 February 1997.)
- Table push ups: Still sitting in front of the table, bring your hands into loose fists with the thumb side of the hand facing up and place your hands underneath the edge of the table. Continuing to keep your elbows in at your sides and shoulders down, inhale and press your hands up into the table for a count of 3, then relax. When you do this you should feel the small muscles on either side of your lower spine engage. These are your multifidi muscles. These muscles are a group of deep spinal muscles that run up and down the spine each spanning 3 joint segments. These muscles offer stability to help the vertebra work more effectively, and reduce degeneration of the joints of the spine.
- Weighted inhalations: Lying down on your back with a 1-2 pound bag of rice or beans on your belly right below your ribs, breathe in deeply through your nose filling out your belly so that the bag rises, then exhale relaxing and softening the belly. This helps engage the diaphragm as you breathe in. The diaphragm is your primary respiratory muscle and separates your thoracic cavity from your abdominal cavity. This muscle connects with your TVA, as well as the top 3 vertebrae of your lumbar spine. You can gradually increase the weight of the bag up to 5 lbs as long as you do not have a compromised respiratory system (COPD, asthma) and using higher weights is not indicated with young children or the elderly.
- Somatics: Most Somatics sequences (Feldenkrais, Hanna) focus on coordinating movements in the core, alone with the breath. These are a resting exercise of mindfulness of movement and can help you increase your awareness of your core, and improve your engagement of the core. In addition to Somatics, Yoga and Pilates are two great ways to improve balance and coordination in your core since they focus on the entire body, rather than just isolating out one muscle at a time. Enjoy taking some time getting familiar with your deepest core muscles and reaping the results in increased health, well being, and vitality.
“My strength comes from the abdomen. It’s the center of gravity and the source of real power.” ~Bruce Lee
Katey Hawes, owner and founder of Posabilities, Inc.., is a physical therapist, registered yoga teacher, and yoga therapist.