What Does "Strengthening Your Core" Really Mean?
It is becoming apparent that I cannot just break up with core classes due to my pregnancy. I may have stopped teaching, but I find myself needing to write a blog breaking down what is the core. Would this count as a long distance relationship? Thank you for asking, my long distance relationship with my core is going well.
Let's break down your core, deepest to most superficial layers for a comprehensive understanding of core strength, spinal stability, and low back pain.
The most forgotten about layer to the core, and arguably the most crucial.
Diaphragm's Function: As you inhale, your diaphragm drops down creating intra-abdominal pressure stabilizing the spine and expanding your pelvic floor. As you exhale, the pelvic floor naturally contracts and the diaphragm lifts back up into your ribs.
So what is the issue? Paradoxical breathing! If your diaphragm is weak and does not drop down on your inhale, you use your breathing accessory muscles (cue tight neck, traps, all of the above). This paradoxical breathing pattern can create issues for your low back from lack of spinal stability, pelvic floor, and neck from overuse in the accessory muscles.
How to work on it? Diaphragmatic Breathing! Whether in a supine, side-lying, seated, or standing position work on getting 360 degrees breath. That does not mean just belly breath. On each inhale feel lateral rib expansion, back body expansion, and belly breath. This may not be easy or simple at first, but trust me, it is worth your time. Whether you do this before your core class, when you wake up in the morning, or as your seated at your desk, make time for it! A well functioning diaphragm is pretty much the hottest trend of 2021.
Next step on this Ms.Frizzle’s breakdown of the core, we are one step more superficial folks.
Transverse Abdominis Function: This anterior and lateral core muscle helps compress the core, and provides spinal and pelvic stability. The most functional way to engage your TA’s is through a forceful exhale while bracing. Even though the TA’s run vertically, they can fire in horizontal segments (Upper, Middle and Lower).
So what’s the issue? When the TA does not work as an entire unit. If you are getting TA Activation from the Upper and Middle TA’s but none from the lower, this imbalance will cause issues. As you exhale forcefully, if the core does not engage the TA’s at all the stomach will “push out." This can bear down on your pelvic floor, and once again, cause issues!
How to work on it?- Start lying down with a nice big diaphragmatic inhale, do a forceful exhale (like you are blowing up a balloon) and brace. The core as a unit should compress/drop down, upper, middle and lower. Adding a balloon to exercises (yes, actually blowing it up on an exhale) will add extra resistance for your diaphragm and TA’s. Check out my core class focusing on TA activation to learn more.
The classic “six pack” muscle we all have a love/hate relationship with.
Rectus Abdominis Function: Trunk flexion. Whenever you have thought of your core muscles in the past, this is the muscle you are thinking about. It is your standard crunches, sit ups, six pack, and all that jazz. It is a very important component to our core, and one we feel more comfortable working. It is still meant to compress the core in addition to trunk flexion, so its work with the TA’s is crucial.
So what’s the issue? If you are doing crunches and your stomach pushes out versus compressing down, or your glutes clench, you are not getting proper or full activation of your rectus abdominis. You may be getting partial activation for trunk flexion, but compensating for compression to make the “picture” of the exercise.
How to work on it? When doing any standard core exercise, focus less on getting high off the ground, and more on where you are initiating the movement from. Exhale as you go into trunk flexion (a crunch), and still notice the upper, middle, and lower core compress down. Even put your hands on your glutes/hip flexors to make sure you are not clenching or gripping during these exercises.
Your internal and external oblique are their own muscle groups, but we will be discussing more as a unit.
Obliques Function: Your oblique’s are responsible for ipsilateral (same-side) and contralateral (opposite side) rotation along with side bending and some flexion. The right and left side internal/external obliques work together to make these movements happen.
So what’s the issue? One of the more common issues I see in regards to obliques is when the range of motion is limited. From sitting at desks all day, our mid back tightens from lack of movement. We end up building improper rotational movement patterns as we lose range of motion. Your thoracic spine (mid-back) should rotate, and if we end up finding all of our rotation from our low back the issues start spiraling.
How to work on it? Before jumping into oblique work, do some supine twists. Lie on your side with your knees bent, keep your knees stacked on top of each other as you open your top arm and twist from your mid back. Test your range of motion, and when performing oblique exercises, be aware of where you feel it and where the rotation is coming from.
But of-COREse I could ramble on about core all day long. No matter what core class you are taking, remember the core has a lot more elements than its standard rectus abdominis "six pack" muscle. Get the most out of your classes by understanding how to work the core from the deepest layer to the most superficial. Cheers to your well functioning diaphragm/core in 2021, very on trend.