08 Aug Core exercises are about more than just your abs
You probably know that core strength is important. But did you know your core is much more than just your abs? So, what muscles make up your core and what are the best exercises to strengthen them? We asked an exercise physiologist for her tips…
What is the core?
The core is a collective term to refer to the primary muscles at your centre. These muscles bring stability to the spine and support movement of the limbs. The core makes up nearly half the body, and includes all the muscles that attach to the pelvis and spine.
To the rehabilitation world, the core is the thoraco-lumbar-pelvic (trunk) complex. It’s composed of as many as 35 different muscle groups! These muscles connect into the pelvis from the spine and hip area. In order to simplify the core muscles, I usually divide them into four regions; back extensors, abdominals, lateral trunk muscles, and the hip muscles.
The core as a cylinder, not a 6 pack…
Put simply, you can think about the core as a cylinder; it has a bottom (the pelvic floor muscles), a top (the diaphragm) and sides (the abdominals, obliques and back muscles).
The core’s VIP: The Diaphragm
We already know that it’s primary function is to stabilise, but how? Well, this is where the diaphragm is really funky and important… The core creates stability when it generates intra-abdominal pressure by a gentle ‘drawing in’ action from all sides of the cylinder at the same time… but particularly from the diaphragm being a secure lid.
So, what happens if our diaphragm doesn’t function optimally?
Well, studies have looked at the associations between lower back pain and diaphragm functioning. One study in particular found:
- Comparing people with lower back pain (LBP) to people without, the LBP group had less diaphragm movement when they inhaled and exhaled
- The difference was more noticeable during inhalation, and they noted the diaphragm was positioned higher than the other pain-free group
- This finding was even more pronounced when they added a level of physical exertion (a simple postural task)
The researchers hypothesize that this dysfunction of the diaphragm may exacerbate symptoms of lower back pain by increasing the anterior shear forces on the ventral region of the spinal column.
It’s all very interesting. But how does this information help you?
Well, it means you now know where to start when it comes to strengthening your core and reducing your risk of low back pain! Let the process of holistic treatment begin…
Core Exercises: How to train and strengthen your core
There are a plethora of ways to train your core. Let me tell you, sit-ups and crunches are NOT THE ONLY WAY (they’re actually the worst way). Now that you understand how the core functions, you can see how it comes into play all the time, not just when we try to isolate it. Since our centre of gravity resides within our pelvis, and is where all movement begins; our core becomes fundamental for creating stability of all our lower limb movements. This even includes simple ankle and knee movements!
- Diaphragmatic breathing
- Transverse abdominus activation
- Pelvic tilts
- Isometric exercises (no movement) e.g. dead bugs
Then build strength and control:
- Animal crawls
- Bird-dog (4-point alternative arm leg extension)
- Forearm plank and side plank
Then move onto:
- Compound movements e.g. lunges or lunges with single arm press
- Dynamic movements e.g. cable rotations
- Unilateral exercises e.g. single arm cable or dumbbell press
There are many exercises that I prescribe to my patients for core strengthening. The exercises include basic body-weight movements, sometimes really simple exercise to increase body awareness, proprioception and neuromuscular connection; it doesn’t always need to feel like its burning for it to be having seriously positive benefits!
My philosophy is to progress things to more functional movement patterns so you have to rely on core strength and stability to complete movements with good technique and control. A strong and stable core can improve optimal performance throughout the whole body and enable you move better, move more, and move longer, as well as preventing injuries!
Get the right advice
If you aren’t sure where to start, it’s best to ask for help. If you’re pregnant, have recently had a baby, experience low back pain or have experienced an injury, it’s important to make sure the exercises you do are safe. Your local exercise physiologist can help! Click here to find one near you.
Written by Jacinta Brinsley. Jacinta is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist at iNform Health and Fitness Solutions, and is currently completing a PHD on Mental Health.