Monday 27 March 2023

Let's get to the core of the core

We often hear about the core. The first thing that most people think of when it comes to the core are six-packs or abdominal exercises. For others they are often told to "brace" their core during exercises such as the squat or deadlift. Little do most people including the majority of PT's know that the core is more than just your abdominal region. Indeed, the core is the lynchpin of the human body, linking your upper body to your lower. It is involved in every motion and weakness or restrictions in it can seriously impact your workouts and even your quality of normal life.

Table of contents

What is the core?

At its most basic your core is a group of muscles that stabilises and controls your abdominal region, which spans from your pelvic floor to your diaphragm. It is the lynchpin that helps keep us upright, whilst allowing our spine to move and bend. It acts as a shock-absorber and helps protect your internal organs. Without it we wouldn't be able to play sports or even get up from sitting on the floor. It is also central to the movement of the lower and upper portions of our bodies as these regions connect to our core, for example the hamstrings to the pelvis. A strong core allows for more efficient movement from the body, which in turn allows for increased performance, injury prevention and longevity.

Diagram from The Cheer Kin.

The core may be made up of various different muscles however they can be generally divided in two groups: deep core and superficial core. Deep core musculature helps stabilise you spine and thus body as well as aid in breathing. Superficial core muscles help you move such as rotation, bending, twisting and sitting up. The primary muscles of each group are:

Supericial Core:

  • Erector spinae
  • External and internal obliques
  • Quadratus lumborum
  • Rectus andominus

Deep Core:

  • Diaphragm
  • Multifidus
  • Pelvic floor musculature
  • Transverse abdominus
Diagram from The Cheer Kin.

Other muscles that are technically superficial core muscles due to connecting to the abdominal area include the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, hamstrings, and latissimus dorsi. Stabilisers such as the trapezius and hip-flexor range of muscles also connect to the core, with the latter aiding core stabilisation.

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The core and the spine

The bulk of the spine is divided between the Thoracic and Lumbar vertabrae. The Lumbar spine literally forms the backbone of the core region. The Thoracic spine, whilst predominantly sitting above the main core region, does connect into it. Both however have different roles when it comes to movement:

  • Lumbar spine: Supports the weight of the body whilst also helping to resist excessive rotation. Whilst it can handle movement such as flexion and extension, the lumbar spine prefers to remain stiff to stabilise the body and help the hips produce power.
  • Thoracic spine: Extending from your shoulders to the bottom of your ribcage, the thoracic spine is the opposite of the lumbar spine in that it is made to flex and move and can also handle rotation. Being in sedentary positions for prolonged periods of time can restrict your thoracic mobility.
The divisions of the spinal column. Diagram from Optimum Exercise Physiology.

In regards to exercise, some physios suggest avoiding typical dynamic core exercises such as situps, back extensions that over-extend, and oblique side bends as it causes movement in the Lumbar spine region increasing its mobility as oppossed to improving its stiffness. Instead they suggest performing isometric exercises to increase stiffness. They argue that whilst such dynamic exercises may increase the size of your superficial abdominal muscles, it could cause imbalances in your Lumbar musculature affecting its ability to adequately retain stiffness. Such exercises they say can also cause lower back pain.

If, as a result, you would prefer to avoid such dynamic exercises luckily there are a plathorea of isometric and even dynamic exercises that focus on a stable Lumbar spine. If you wish to continue using such dynamic exercises then by all means, just be aware of the potential issues. Indeed, there is no reason why you can't focus on both.

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Core problems

A core that is lacking balance, strength and/or mobility can cause problems throughout the body as it fails to perform its purpose. These issues can become worse as we age due to physical degeneration caused by wear and tear to our bones and cartilage. Quite possibly the most common and biggest problem people suffer from when it comes from an imbalanced core is lower back pain, which is made worse by modern lifestyles and sitting down.

Exercise and sports specific an imbalanced core caused or exasperated by modern living, or overly focusing on getting a "six-pack", typically results in a tightened rectus abdominus and weak erector spinae, resulting in lower back pain. It can also cause your gluteals and hamstrings to become overly lengthened and weak whilst tightening your hip-flexors resulting in Anterior Pelvic Tilt, another contributor to lower back pain and restrictions in being able to properly perform exercises such as the squat or deadlift, which depend on the core being at its optimum.

Luckily the majority of physical issues caused by an imbalanced core can be rectified by a proper core training routine that focuses on:

  • Strengthening weak muscles.
  • Stretching tightened muscles.
  • Strengthening your inner core and pelvic floor.
  • Improving overall mobility and coordination.

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Core benefits

There are a multitude of benefits to training your core effectively, some of which can be gleaned from the above. To summarise:

  • Increases your ability to create stiffness in your abdominal area, i.e. your ability to "brace", which allows for greater force and power generation from other parts of your body.
  • Improves your core and thoracic spine flexability.
  • Reduces the risk of lower back pain and abdominal injuries if done properly.
  • Can greatly improve your standard of living, especially if you have had quite a sedentiary lifestyle.

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Core tactics

Due to the extent of your core there are a vast multitude of ways to work out its components. The key is to ensure that you focus on the entirety rather than just one or two. It is also highly important to make sure that you work the core out in the full range of motion and in all three planes to ensure optimal results.

Some methods to employ would include:

  • Isometric exercises to improve the stabilisation of your muscles and joints in a static loaded position. One of the core's primary functions is spinal stiffness and this is a great way to help enhance that. This article Don't be a plank - Are plank exercises the be all end all? focuses on isometric core exercises.
  • Transverse plane exercises, whilst also helping stabilisation, to improve your cores ability to handle spinal rotation under load. This would be a very important one for people who participate in sports that involve a lot of quick movements and turns such as football.
  • Stretches and yoga that focuses on the core region to loosen up overly tightened muscles and improve spinal flexability.
  • Strengthening the lower back and gluteal muscles to help counteract overly tightened abs and hip-flexors.
  • Breathing exercises as these work out the diaphragm, which forms the top of the core.

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Take away

As can be seen the core is far more than just your abs. It is an incredibly important and vital part of your body that should receive as much, if not more, attention than the muscles of the your upper body and legs. A weak core can lead to a variety of everyday problems that not only can affect your ability to exercise with proper technique but can seriously impact your quality of living. The fact it is called the core should say it all. If you have any questions then feel free to ask away in the comments or send me some feedback!

Lyle Richardson,
Gym Pal - Your Friend In Fitness


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