Good functional movement has to come from a secure base. A solid platform creates a stable base from which to propel movement – IN ANY DIRECTION. We have talked about this in relation to shoulders and also in ankles, so it is that we come to the basic platform for much of the movement of the trunk – THE CORE. Some may argue that the platform for movement of the trunk comes from the pelvis or the ribcage. This is true. But in terms of movement, a strong core is a defining factor in any movement of the body and in particular the limbs. The core activation helps to stablise both the ribs and the pelvis.
But what is a strong core?
When we refer to the ‘core muscles’ of the abdominal cavity, we are in fact referring to the deep muscles of the abdominal area. NOT THE 6 PACK! This is a gross misconception that a strong 6 pack equals a strong core. Looking at the anatomy, the core muscles are the transversus anbdominus, obliques, rectus abdominus, erector spinae and diaphragm. You will notice that the rectus abdominus is included in the list of core muscles but it is by no means the indication of a strong and active core. These muscles lie in a band that sits around the abdominal area like a Weightlifters belt, forming a compressive supportive base and maintaining internal pressure.
What is the Function of the Core?
A strong core “stabilises the thorax and pelvis during dynamic movmenet and provides internal pressure to expel substances in the case of forced expiration or carbon laden air” The core is active in all movements and it is not so much a primary mover of the trunk or limbs, but an active circular belt that holds firm and provides stability for the lumbar curve and the internal pressure of the abdominal cavity (more on this later)
If you imagine the core is like a springform cake tin. Now for all you wanna be Australian Bake Off contestants, you will know exactly what this is. Oddly enough you can also liken this to an auto hose clamp. By tightening the screw/cake clips (anterior muscles) you create a pressure on the circular band that keeps the integrity of the shape, preventing any cake mixture/oil from escaping the tube. If you think of the screw/clips as the core muscles you have a good indication of how this structure works in the body.
When considering how best the core works, thinking about maintaining internal pressure is the best analogy. The deep muscles of the core don’t move your spine, they contain it. They also hold the internal pressure of the abdominal cavity in check. Think of“Thor Björnsson (The Mountain) doing a massive lift in a strongman competition. The amount of pressure that is expended in say, flipping a tractor tyre is immense. A lifter needs to contain that immense amount of pressure in a stable cylinder to be able to perform such a huge lift. So a core is not a mover, but a container, holding in exertion and pressure to enable a properly functioning lumbar support and platform.
Now a strong core doesn’t involve a lot of heavy isolation holidng and exertion. It should be an active band that is activated continually in movement. We ‘train’ our core so that it is active and engaged when we need it to be so we don’t consciously engage it. Contrary to a lot of other movments, the core is an inward contraction as opposed to an outward holding. Many people when they go to lift something heavy or perform an all out movement, hold their breath, tighten their belly and brace. Often this pushes the abdominal wall outward and ‘flexes’ the muscles like a bicep flex. In fact, the way you want to engage your core is the opposite. Imagine a hand placed on your abdomen and you have ‘pull the stomach’ inward as you flex your hip. Like pulling your tummy in when you get your waist measured. (yes we all do it). That is engaging your core in the correct way.
An old ‘adage’ that was used in my dancing days was to tie a piece of string around your waist. You would then do class and if the string ‘popped’ you knew you had let go of your core. Usually it would occur during Grande Allegro (big jumps) where that maximum effort was engaged. I also liken it to once when our physio was watching a run of Swan Lake. 15 topless male dancers on stage in a pose, waiting for the lead to make his entrance on stage. The physio was shocked that 13 of the ‘swans’ were pot-bellied swans, having let their stomachs sag in a standing position. This is not an engaged core!
Whenever talking about ‘the core’ and having it engaged there is always a caveat that seems to be misplaced or ignored. ROTATION. We all of us don’t move in just 2 dimensional directions and rotation is a really good way to test our how you are utilising your core muscles. It is one thing to be able to bend forwards or extend backwards and have the core engaged and be trained in that fashion (think planks), but what happens when you rotate? This is an often neglected movement pattern that we don’t include in our myriad of exercises. Rotation is vital to healthy movement patterns and to be able to understand how to use your core in rotational ways, you have to practice it. You must train the body to engage in this movement pattern if you hope to be safe in a multi-dimensional plane.
This is where I find some exercise regimes suffer, as they don’t work the rotational aspect of movement. Reaching up and back requires a length in the muscle that is not utilised in just reaching up or just reaching back. It’s like wringing out a wet tea towel; you get more stretch out of twisting and pulling than just pulling alone. So the tensile stretch in a fibre under rotation with extension is greater than just when it is being extended. So in this way, we have to train to turn our core on when we are rotating or moving in multi planes. Being able to hold that string in place when you are reaching up and back to catch a ball is a different way of contracting rather than just bending forward at the hips. So be sure to test your core strength in a rotational aspect as wel as a forward/backward motion. It’s key to understanding exactly how to keep that tension and internal pressure under control.
The core is not a muscle to be built up so that it looks good when you flex or take your t shirt off at Bondi. It’s a subtle muscle that is the basis of a healthy spine and solid platform for movement. So understand how to use it, train it in various ways and contemplate what you are doing to be active within it not just whilst you’re working out – but when you are standing in a queue, doing the ironing or event sitting at the desk. It’s an important and vital muscle group to understand and work with.