Familiar with being asked to ‘engage’ or ‘activate your core’ during a fitness class? Absolutely! And if this is something you yourself have heard countless times, just imagine how many times your instructor has said it to their classes and clients over the years.
But familiarity with a phrase or instruction (though there are many different ways to say it) can start to mean we pay it less mind. Also as an instructor, I find that many people can be quite hard on themselves when they think about their core. Both seemed good reasons to take a deeper look at the make up of our core, how to go about strengthening it, and why for so many reasons we really do need to work it.
Big spoiler alert - it’s definitely about a lot more than just working towards ‘rock hard abs’ or a getting that ‘ideal beach body’ (cringe!). When it comes to core strength, particularly if it’s something you struggle with or if you’re coming back after a break from exercise, working our way up carefully is the way to go.
Firstly, we need to consider the core as the centre of our whole being and also as absolutely fundamental to all movement. A strong core supports and stabilises the spine and also promotes stronger and more efficient movement for the rest of the body. This is true not just when training but also in our day to day lives. Looking after it also means we have improved posture, we can protect from back injury and importantly reduce the back pain that bothers so many of us with desk or sedentary jobs.
People are often surprised to learn that the core actually incorporates not just the front of the body (easy to become over focused on this as it’s what we see in the mirror) but also our back and the sides of the body as well. Throw in the diaphragm and the pelvic floor too, and you’ve now got the real picture of the full and beautifully complex package that makes up your core.
In essence, it is like a snug protective corset of connective muscle around you, but importantly one that can enable and mobilise rather than constrict! If you have a particularly tricky relationship with your own midriff, a nice way to try and shift this would be to consider your core as something that it envelops you, keeps you steady and safe, and hugs you tight. Also remember this is absolutely true whether or not we insist – as many do – that we have no core or that we haven’t seen our abs for years!
So taking a look at the deep inner core muscles first...
When we properly brace or activate the abdominals we create a compression chamber around the spine that then protects it. The muscles that create this pressure are the diaphragm at the top, the pelvic floor at the bottom, the Multifidus at the back and the Transverse Abdominals (TVA) at the front and sides.
When we come to look at our outer core muscles, these are also used to stabilise the spine and pelvis, but the major difference is that they also allow for the larger movements we do day to day. The muscles that support the large forward, side, back and rotational movements of the body include the internal and external obliques, the Rectus abdominis (those Peter Andre muscles), the Erector Spinae (either side of your spine), the Latissimus Dorsi (the broadest muscle across your back and the ‘wings’ bodybuilders like to train) and also connected are your Glutes (you know that’s the booty).
These are the big important muscles when it comes to movement, but it’s also worth knowing that lots of other smaller supporting muscles (with many a Latin name) exist too to help with both stabilisation and movement. I love kettlebells so much as they get all of these smaller muscles firing as well as the big ones, mostly by virtue of it’s uneven shape and the need we have to brace our core to counterbalance it (more on this here)
So now we’ve got a little anatomy under our belt, what is best to strengthen up the core? Well, the answer is probably not a load of crunches. There are actually much better ways get the strength we need.
First up, core training needs to start from the inside out. This is especially true when coming back to exercise post-partum. After pregnancy but in other scenarios as well, we really do need to target those deep muscles to protect the spine before hitting any more complex movements that focus on developing the outer core.
Essentially this means we need to practice core stabilisation before we practice core movement. Then once we've got that basic strength built, we need to continue to do both.
For example, we are working on that core stability simply when we squat or lunge correctly, drawing those abdominals in as we go. Isometric exercises that work you hard whilst limiting trunk movement such as Bird Dogs and Dead Bugs are also excellent. They work on the stabilisation whilst maintaining length in the spine, and without adding too much load. Planks also fall in this category, however they do require supporting your own bodyweight, so if challenging they can be something to work toward with the previous suggestions. Let's not forget that Pilates is also an excellent way to develop that core strength and stability and will complement any other form of training you do.
Remember if you have questions, concerns or even need a greater range of modifications on offer in class – don’t worry! It’s all about you and all you need to do is ask.
For those still in doubt, please do believe there is so much we can do to build strength! And this is true, whatever base you are starting from.
Finally, I think one really important step in the process is to start to think kindly of your core. Consider it your friend, your support, and think about what it already allows you to do every day. Have a conversation with it and see how its feeling. Because a little focus and TLC could go a long way. 😃