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What you don’t know about your core

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What you don’t know about your core

By Shane Sauer

Chances are you’ve heard people talking about “the core”. Statements like “a weak core is the reason for your back pain” or “you need to strengthen your core muscles to improve your posture” are commonplace.  If you go to the gym, you’ll see group exercise classes dedicated to your core. Walk into a yoga studio and you’ll be sure to hear the teacher use core activation cues. Search the web and you’ll come across a million different articles discussing the best core exercises for weight loss, your golf game, etc.

With all of the hype and information out there, you probably don’t need another list of reasons to train your core or a set of exercises to make that happen. Instead, this blog will help you cut through the hype by giving you some basic information about your core that might cause you to rethink what you know.

What is “the core”?

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It seems like everyone can agree that “the core” includes your abdominal muscles (rectus abdominus and obliques). Building on that foundation, others will start to include a deep muscle called the transverse abdominus and some muscles on the back side like the quadratus lumborum (QL) and/or the spinal erectors. Yoga practitioners will likely include the pelvic floor and deep hip flexor musculature (psoas). Those focused on posture and performance will continue to add more posterior chain stabilizer muscles like the glutes (maximus & medius), lats (latissimus dorsi), traps (trapezius), and adductors. Rehabilitation specialists include up to 35 different muscles on their list that connect the spine and pelvis together and to the limbs. The rotator cuff has even been included in the discussion.

What’s important to note here is that there is no agreed upon “core.” So, before starting a discussion about the core, it’s important to clearly define what is meant by that term. For this blog, “the core” is the muscles attaching to the spine and pelvis that provide support and stability in dynamic postural situations. In other words, the stuff that keeps you upright when moving.

What does the core do?

Hopefully, by now it is clear that the answer to this question depends on the situation. Posture is certainly a job for core musculature. Without these muscles, we would not be able to stand or sit upright. The core is also important for dynamic stability. What that means is that as we move, the core allows us to transfer forces from limb to limb. For example, how weight shifts from one leg to the next when you walk. If the spine and pelvis are not held stable dynamically, we lose strength and efficiency and put ourselves at risk for injury. Like when you pick something up off the ground, if your core is unstable you won’t be able to transfer the load from your legs to your arms and you might hurt your back. This applies to all movements, from walking to sports, but it becomes more important with greater loads.

This leads us to what might be a more important question…

How does the core work?

What are some common core exercises you know? Crunches? Bicycle crunches? Planks? Bridges? When you’re doing these exercises, you’re consciously thinking about moving and using your core muscles. However, this is rarely how the core is used in life. If you’re walking, you might be thinking about moving your leg and where to place your foot, but you’re probably not thinking about how to stabilize so you don’t fall over (nor should you be). If you’re playing tennis or even practicing a tennis swing, you’ll focus on how to move the racket and where to position your feet, but you won’t be thinking about how to contract the muscles of the core to transfer the energy from your legs to arm. Simply put, the core is used unconsciously (reflexively) for dynamic stability. And imagine if you did have to consciously think about your posture every time you moved? You would be mentally exhausted just standing up!

This means that your posture and stability are controlled by subconscious, fundamental parts of your brain: your brainstem and cerebellum. They work together to produce the symphony of flexor and extensor muscle tone that keeps you upright and stable. It also means that instability or pain might not be due to weakness of the core muscles, but rather the control system!

How do I train the core?

Now that you know what the core is, what it does, and how it works, it’s time to discuss how to train it. Here are a few things to remember when building a core strength program:

  1. Don’t train your core more than any other muscle group. In fact, it might be better to train the core less because it is working in every exercise you do.

  2. Train your core for the activities you do. Chances are this means you’ll need to spend more time focusing on stability work rather than flexion/extension strength.

  3. Don’t train the core in hope of losing belly fat. The fact is that you can’t spot train weight loss. Your body decides how to utilize and mobilize fat stores on its own. In fact, core work might increase belly size as the muscles grow, just like your arm gets bigger as you do bicep curls.

  4. After any specific core work, integrate it into a functional movement. In other words, if you do an exercise where you are consciously thinking about using your core, follow that up with an exercise of the same movement that trains the core reflexively (puts the focus on using your limbs). For example, follow up a Russian Twist by throwing some punches on the heavy bag.

  5. Don’t assume core training will fix your pain and weakness issues. In a lot of cases, correct and purposeful exercise will do the trick.  But because reflexive tone is controlled subconsciously by the brainstem and cerebellum, there are times when certain exercises might actually make you worse.

Hopefully this blog presented you with some new information about your core. Please use it to help you critically evaluate what you come across in other articles and discussions. This way you can make informed decisions about your exercise plans. And remember, if you need some help with your training, be sure your professional understands the muscles and the motor control behind the movement.