I hear people talk about core strengthening ALL the time. But many people don’t even understand what they mean when they say “core”.
Frankly, if someone tells you that having a strong core is going to solve your back problems, they’re wrong. Research has proven that the core muscle strength has no relationship to your back pain. This does not mean that the core muscles don't have a function, they serve a really important one which I'll go into detail on, but they do not cure back pain.
So what exactly is your core?
Most people take the word core to mean abdominals, which is completely and utterly wrong. Your core is so much more than just your abdominal muscles, and to be honest those “6 pack” muscles that you’re picturing in your head right now, contribute very little to your core stability.
There is a wide range of functions that your core muscles are responsible for. The first is to provide stability in your lumbar spine during movement. It does this using Valsalva. You'll notice the area in which the core is found has very little protective bone structure, only the spine running up the middle really. Compare this to your thoracic region or upper back where the rib cage protects the internal organs there. Therefore, the second function of the core is organ containment and protection for the abdominal area. The benefit of this is that without a bony structure here, we can move more freely especially if compared to what would happen if our rib cage extended further down the spine. That being said, the third function of the core is to allow for the massive range of motion we have in the area. The fourth and final major function of the core is to stabilise the top half of your body over the bottom half. Because humans are bipedal (we stand and walk on two legs) the top half of the body is not in contact with the ground and so it needs stabilising to stop ourselves from falling over!
Now I could go more into depth on these points, let alone mention the numerous other functions of the core, but that's enough detail for now.
There are a large number of muscles that make up the 'core', some of which you will have heard of and others you won’t have. There will also be a few that might surprise you!
They can be split into 2 groups. The 'major' and 'minor core muscles.
The major core muscles include:
- Pelvic floor (made up from a number of small muscles)
- transverse abdominis
- internal and external obliques
- rectus abdominus
- erector spinae muscle group
- thoraco-lumbar fascia
- quadratus lumborum
And the minor core muscles:
- latissimus dorsi
As you can see, there’s a lot of muscles here. They all work in coordination to stabilise the torso via the Valsalva manoeuvre. This manoeuvre increases the intra-abdominal pressure, preventing excessive movement for protection, and also resisting the forces acting upon the body. As well as working as part of the 'core', the above muscles all have their own individual functions, causing the trunk to twist and bend when they're used individually.
Almost all functional movement requires the core to be stable, for example when pushing something. If the core is not stable the torso would crumple, leaving no base for your legs and arms to exert force upon the object.
I like to think of my core as my own internal weightlifting belt. It functions in the same way, the core muscles at the front of your torso pull upon the thoraco-lumbar fascia which is located over the majority of your lower back. Pulling on this constricts around the torso, increasing the pressure and providing the stability we spoke about earlier.
So, how do you go about strengthening your core?
Many people will tell you that you need to start doing planks, which is only half right. A plank will increase your core stability when static, but most injuries occur during dynamic movement. So it doesn’t translate too well. Dynamic core stability can only be developed by doing dynamic movements whilst maintaining the Valsalva manoeuvre. This can be anything! From squats, to deadlifts, cable rotations to medicine ball slams. The catch is that the core has to be stable in multiple directions.
There are three planes of motion we move in:
Frontal- This plane divides the body into front and back, the movements are anything sideways
Sagittal- this plane divides the body into left and right, the movements here are forwards and back
Transverse- this plane divides the body into top and bottom, the movements here are rotation.
As you can see you need to be stable in all of these directions and even when these are combined. So I can say with certainty that there is no one movement that will cover all of this. The most important thing is that you train through a range of motion that incorporates some of these planes of motion, rather than staying static.
Hanging leg raises- A very advanced "core" exercise
To start, you can try doing a pelvic tilt. A video demonstration of this is available on our instagram! the pelvic tilt will teach you the basics of bracing your core, but it is a static movement. This means that we need to progress to involve complex movements as well. The next progression would be to include movement of the arms. Reaching above your head with both would challenge your core musculature in the saggital plane, using one arm at a time creates a rotational effect, challenging thew core in the transverse plane. The same effects can be created by moving the legs, however this will be more difficult due to the increased weight of the legs.
Now, it's all well and good being able to do these movements well. but the fact is they're still movements where you're laying on your back. We now need to progress to movements that are in various positions, such as; on your hands and knees or standing. To be honest there's so many different movements that you can do to strengthen your core I couldn't possibly list them here. But the point is, you should be able to apply the basic pelvic tilt to almost all of the movements you do. Simply bracing your core properly and doing some squats and lunges is an excellent way of challenging your core.
*hint- To really increase the difficulty, include an element of instability to the movements. A bosu ball is ideal for this. Just don't go using heavy weights at the same time, and remember to build up to this. You've got to learn to walk before you can run!
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