I believe that a lot of practitioners and PT’s do not dedicate enough time to core. Firstly, it is time consuming and the results are slow and secondly, I think that they do not educate enough on the difference between utilising/engaging the core and using your abs. I was 100% at fault for this too, so I started to make a mental note of who came into my clinic and ‘said they know how to engage their core or had education on how to use their core’, 90% of them were using their abs and not their core.
The core is the only group of muscles in the body that we need to turn on before we can use it. It is an internal stabilisation system which is required to support the pelvis and the spine. It needs to be reflexive to provide feedback to the system. Every movement we do, we need and should have our core engaged. Therefore, to explain core, I need to explain a little bit about types of muscles. I generally split the body into ‘outer shell muscles” and “inner shell muscles”.
Outer shell muscles: these are the superficial muscles that you can touch with your hands, your quads, biceps and abs for example. These muscles work on the principle of ‘bigger, faster, stronger, power’, so we can say they are more fast twitch. With these muscles the emphasis is on 100% effort and they will grow bigger, be stronger and more powerful. You will know when these muscles tire for example, you can no longer do a bicep curl rep or throw a medicine ball as far.
Inner shell muscles: these are deeper, smaller and weaker muscles and usually difficult to find and feel. Therefore they are more in the slow twitch category. With these muscles, it is more about utilising/engaging them, so switching them on and maintaining them through out movement. You will not notice them tire like the outer shell muscles do, it will be more subtle, for example the outer shell muscles taking over or the movement feels different from the first couple reps.
Relating this to core:
Core= Is an inner shell muscle. It is made up of 1. Transverse abdominus (buffers outward pressure), 2. Pelvic floor (buffers downward pressure), 3. Diaphragm (buffers upward pressure), 4. Multifudus (small spinal stabiliser).
The outer shell muscles are your Abdominals (Rectus Abdominus) and your obliques (internal and external). These are the muscles that are normally mistaken when people say that they have engaged their core.
- Can you pull your belly button in?
- Can you stop yourself from peeing?
- Can you breath in and out?
Then you can use your core! We just need to utilise it and build up our endurance.
Difference between core and abs:
If you lie on your back with your knees bent, do a cough or laugh…what did you feel and where? That is your abs working. Therefore, if your inner shell muscles are weak/not engaged, this leads to the outer muscles taking over, which in turn then leads to injury
Utilising/Engaging core has to initially be done with no distractions around you, as I find it is 80% mental concentration and 20% physical movement.
So lie on your back (can be done in prone) knees bent, find your hips bone (inside waistband of your shorts) and then move in an inch. You can apply a bit of pressure here downwards. Then put your thumb on the QL area which allows you to then have both feedback from the core and rib cage expansion. Now pull your belly button in and then stop your pee……..you should feel on your fingers a muscle pop up (be engaged), that is your core.
- Pull belly button in- like someone has just dropped an ice cube onto your belly
- Stop the pee- just has to be 50% effort
- Then breath without letting go of the first two steps
Stage 1: 10 breath hold with 10 breath rest. Repeat 10 times
⁃ Ensure that the shoulder blades are back and down
⁃ Progression= Can be to reduce your rest time, though make sure not to compromise the activation of the core and allowing the abs to take over.
Stage 2: a). 10 breath hold with 10 breath rest. Repeat 10 times. (Don’t let the lower back arch off the floor, try keep it gently touching)
⁃ Ensure the posture is set, shoulder blades back and down.
⁃ Progression= Again is to reduce your rest time between reps
- b) Start in ‘dead bug’ position (pic above), so hips and knees at 90 and arms straight and at 90.
⁃ Shoulder blades back and down
⁃ Engage core
- Move hands over head, keeping the arms straight. Ensure that you do not flare your ribs during the movement.
- 10 breaths over 10 secs
C). 10 reps each leg of down/up
⁃ Keep core engaged throughout and lower back flat. I would rather you reset and engage and then continue with the reps, than blast out all the reps at once but only using your core for half of the reps.
You can then play around with the variations, for example:
TA (core) UD/UD 2 x 10
TA (core) DU/DU 2 x 10
TA (core) UU/DD 2 x 10
Increase knee angle
TA (core) DU/DU/ both legs at the same time 2 x 6-10
(If lifting the hips in flexion is uncomfortable, then you can do heel slides instead for the same reps as mentioned above. Same check list and posture set).
If you find it uncomfortable to lie on your back and do these core exercises, you can easily do similar ones lying on your front (prone) or in sidelying.
⁃ You would still run through your check list
⁃ Stage 1 would be the same instructions but you are lying on your front or sidelying.
⁃ Stage 2a would be lying on your front, engage core and then lift one leg off the floor keeping it straight. Same 10 breath hold with 10 breath rest and same progressions.
⁃ Stage 2b:
⁃ 1. Come into a four point kneeling positions (hands and knees)
⁃ 2. Shoulder blades back and down and chin tuck
⁃ 3. Engage core (check list)
⁃ 4. 10 breath hold and 10 breath rest (same progressions, just reduce rest time)
⁃ 5. Bird Dogs: Start on all four with your knees under your hips and hands under your shoulders, over a gym ball. Set posture ( shoulder blades back and down). Engage the core (check list) and push one leg back and reach in front with the opposite arm. Do not let the trunk rotate to one side or the lower back to arch. 2x 10 reps
(Again just a reminder…….before each movement ensure you have done your core check list and not let your abs take over).
Now once we have built up our core endurance then we can start incorporating it into more controlled dynamic movements and then into everyday movements and sports.
During reverse Flys- core needs to be utilised/engaged
During squats- not just when lifting heavy, but at all times!
Driving, picking up the washing, carrying shopping bags- core needs to be utilised.
Rugby- you need your core engaged to support the spine and provide a strong foundation, so that when you drive/tackle/sprint you are functioning at your optimal.
A side note, For those who are interested: Your hips are also involved in core by using your primary hip flexors (Psoas and Iliacus) and secondary hip flexors (Rectus Femorus, TFL and Sartorius). Another fun fact is that your diaphragm has four functions, 1. Respiration, 2. Controlling pressure within the whole abdominal cavity, 2. stabilising your thoracolumbar junction, 4. Aids the sphincter in stopping backflow from the stomach to the oesophagus (windpipe).
Therefore, you cannot fully utilise your core if your rib cage is in a poor position, due to your diaphragm not being in its optimal position. There is a lot of evidence suggesting that you can fully train your core just through breathing patterning alone and cueing optimal rib positioning (when the pelvic floor and the diaphragm are parallel to each other). This is primarily linked to how babies utilise their core. The cueing would be “to breath down into Pelvic floor and then out to the sides” This kind of cueing for core, flips the mainstream core principles on its head but it is a great addition to utilising your core.
Things to look out for in relation to poor core function:
- Erectile dysfunction
- Bladder/bowel issues
(Both due to the pelvic floor being unable to buffer pressure from the diaphragm)
- Tilted upward rib cage
- Tilted Thoracolumbar junction
- Tension at neck
- Hollowing of abdominal area
- Accessory breathers
So just to round off, if you haven’t got the jist by now, core is needed in EVERYTHING we do. I am the worst for not utilising my core but when I do, my work out, my running, my sports all improve. Like I said before, it is more a mental activation than Physical one and more subtle than obvious so we tend to never fully utilise/engage it and rely on those outer shell muscles like the abs.
Try the exercises outlined and see if your training or your sports improve. I have loads more progressions or regressions if needed.