The term ‘core strength’ has become a catch phrase throughout the fitness world and beyond. There seems to be a wide range of information available, yet understanding what ‘the core’ constitutes, what it does and the benefits a healthy core provide, can be confusing.
The anatomy of our ‘core’
Otherwise more broadly known as the torso, the major muscles of the core form a muscular corset and include such areas as the transverse abdominal, diaphragm, pelvic floor and multifidus.
The transverse abdominal lies underneath the rest of the abdominal muscle structure, wrapping the sides and front of the abdomen. The pulling in of these muscles like a vacuum, creates intra-abdominal pressure and stability, yet it does not work alone. The action of the transverse abdominal incorporates the diaphragm, a bell shaped muscle that helps breathing and also creates intra-abdominal pressure. The pelvic floor muscles, that are like a hammock supporting the lower internal organs, work with the lower fibres of the transverse abdominal muscle. The transverse abdominal also has a partnership with some small muscles in the back called the multifidus. They co-contract with the transverse abdominal to provide stability to segments of between two or three vertebrae in the spine.
When referring to core strengthening the transverse abdominal, pelvic floor and multifidus are most commonly referenced. Although the torso is made up of a more extensive layering of muscles, this inner layer has a greater stabilising role and is often the initial focus in the rehabilitation of back pain. The multifidus muscle group has the greatest influence on stabilising support to the lumbar spine and therefore retraining the multifudiuss should be part of any core stability program.
The purpose of core strength and stability
These muscles in the trunk and pelvic area have the role of protecting the spine and keeping the centre of the body stable. This provides a solid foundation from which the limbs can work.
In an injury free person, the muscles that make up the core should work naturally, as a ‘pre-anticipatory’ muscle group, activating before any other muscles do. They fail to do their job automatically when lower back pain develops, if there is an abdominal injury or surgery performed to the area.
Linked to our neuromuscular system, these core muscles are subtle in their operation, and can be elusive to sense and ‘switch on’ during retraining. This is due to the nature of the nervous system in this role, to ensure that movement within this muscle group, is executed with minimal stress to the body.
Thankfully this is where the role of clinical pilates comes in to retrain these deep abdominal and back muscles. Although there is material online demonstrating how to activate and strengthen the core, having an assessment by a physiotherapist first will determine if core training is relevant to your physical condition. If it is, then clinical pilates or the demonstration and monitoring of correct technique during your consultation, will ensure that the result of these exercises will be a positive impact on your wellbeing.
Conjecture about the ‘core’
Some argue ‘core stability’ is a myth and that the term is misleading. Rather we should just let these muscles do their job naturally, rather than trying to stabilise and strengthen them. Others argue that that ‘strength’ is a misnomer when referring to the ‘core’ of the body and rather the term ‘endurance’ should be used, that seeking ‘strength’ and ‘stability’ encourages people to have tension throughout this part of the body whist moving, leading to an unnatural movement that does more harm than good.
Another common view is that the core strength has been overrated by the fitness industry, that core stability training is limited in its purposes, and that excessive training of isolated areas of the core can worsen back pain and reduce back stability.
This perspective of strengthening the core has been further complicated by the misconception that if you have a six pack, surely your core must be strong. One thing we can easily confirm is that this rectus abdomens muscle, although part of the ‘muscular corset’ is the outer layer. The transverse abdominal, diaphragm, pelvic floor and multifidus make up the inner most layer, so a washboard stomach is not indicative of a well functioning core. So if your core works well, then you will be the only one to truly appreciate just how awesome it is.
Also relying too much on the core to be the solution of all problems or be the provider of all success, is unwise. Rather a balanced approach is needed. Like other parts of our physiology, the core and the body have a reciprocal relationship, where when good core strength and stability is maintained, the rest of the body will in turn improve it’s function, benefiting the body as a whole.
How significant the core is to injury prevention and our physical wellbeing will continue to be debated, yet it is hard to deny that this muscular corset is essential to our physical function.
Why maintain healthy core strength and stability?
Core stability and the idea of strengthening it originated from a specific problem, treating lower back pain. As such it was not originally intended as something to be pursued by the general population, yet this has not stopped people who are physically fit from seeking better core strength and stability to improve their performance.
Ascertaining whether you have good core stability and strength can be indicated by how well you perform certain exercises like pushups, checking to see if your whole body leaves the ground as one and if you can maintain a straight line from ankle to ear. More than just exercise to work up a sweat or improve a personal best, this mindful attention to detail may help ensure that the exercise has a more solid foundation through core stability, and a lesser chance of injury.
So too, building up this muscular corset, will encourage greater back support and better posture, and therefore help avoid lower back injuries. As the centre from which limbs are provided stability, a solid centre will assist and strengthen movement. Also a well structured core stabilisation training program can improve ‘balance and measures of muscle performance’.
Sure these improvements are great for sporting pursuits, but their real value is the assistance of day to day activity. Sitting at a desk, carrying the groceries, lifting children or navigating a slippery surface should be easier and with better control, if the the core is stable and strong. And if you do lose your balance then having better training of the core muscles may help you more quickly recover and regain a stable centre of gravity.
Whether you take up core training for rehabilitation or choose to pursue it as part of an overall fitness regime, hopefully you will develop a better appreciation for what encompasses the centre of our physical protection and potential.