What Is My Core?

(Originally posted June 28th, 2012)

How many times have you heard, “You need to work on your Core”? Just like the rotator cuff, we hear the term a lot but how many people know that it actually means? Like the rotator cuff it is a group of muscles that work together to fulfill a single role. This role is stability.

The reason this muscle group is called our “Core” is because it is the centre of all movement of our bodies. Our rib cage and pelvis are stable because they are enclosed rings of bone but our abdomen is a very mobile so that we can move around and not be a solid brick with a few limbs. The problem with the human body is that to gain mobility it has to sacrifice stability. This is where the Core muscles come in. They lock down our “core” (abdomen and low back) to create that rigid centre required for healthy and safe limb movement.

Imagine if a big backhoe on a construction site had a flexible centre to its body while lifting a heavy load. It would not have a good foundation for its task and would fold in half. This is what happens to us when our core is weak. We try to lift, push, or pull something and we fold in the centre which can injure our low backs. This is generally the cause of people “throwing out” their backs.

When the core muscles are weak our bodies need to replace this lost stability. So they recruit other muscles to stabilize the spine but they are not made for this purpose and they begin to spasm and cause significant amounts of pain. This is usually what is happening when someone experiences back pain without any injury or event that obviously lead to it.

The core muscles are made up three (or four depending on how you count) groups of muscles. The first is a single muscle most people already know about. It is the diaphragm, the big flat muscles that is the primary muscle for breathing and separates the chest organs from the abdominal organs. The second group is four muscles paired on each side (where the counting discrepancy comes in) commonly called the “Obliques”. The Obliques are made up of the Transversus Abdominus and the Obliqus Abdominus on each side. These muscles start at the spine and rib cage and come forward and down to meet in the centre behind the Rectus Abdominus (the “Six-Pack” abs) and attach at the bottom to the rim of the pelvis. The bottom-most group is a collection of many small muscles called the Pelvic Floor or commonly known as the “Kegels”. These muscles surround and support the genitals and anus. These groups of muscles surround the abdomen from every side and when contracted together they create a solid and strong connection between the rib cage and the pelvis and remove the weak fold in the middle.

Our core is originally conditioned and strengthened when we are infants by crawling around and that wonderful high-pitched crying. Unfortunately we start to lose this strength as our lives become more and more sedentary with school and work. Sitting for long periods of time, especially in poor posture, “turns off” our core muscles and without exercise to strengthen them they will remain off and weak. The longer this goes on, the harder it will be to regain the strength of the muscles again and this will leave us prone to injury. Strengthening the core muscles will help to prevent injury but will also go a long way to alleviating low back pain.

The diaphragm is probably the easiest to of the group to exercise. Practice deep belly breaths throughout the day to stretch and strengthen this muscle. Our diaphragms generally become weak and tight because of western culture’s social stigma of having a tummy. So we all cave to culture’s standards and breathe from our shoulders rather than our stomachs. This causes another whole mess of troubles but that’s a story for another time. For now, deep breathing for at least 5 minutes, multiple times a day will strengthen this essential muscle sufficiently.

At the opposite end, the Kegels can be exercised every time you go to the bathroom. Initiate a full stream of pee then contract your pelvic floor stopping the flow. Release and let the flow return to full strength. Repeat this three times every time you urinate in a day and this will make the pelvic floor very strong. For all the ladies out there, these exercises will also have the added benefit of decreasing the difficulty of childbirth and increasing sexual comfort. There are some theories that state that Kegel exercises can cause problems for men but I cannot find any research to back up this claim nor to the reasons stated by supporters of these theories make much sense. So recommend Kegel exercises for the majority of the public unless specifically suggested otherwise by a medical professional.

We have discussed strengthening the core muscles as a whole a little while ago when covering postural exercises. There are many more exercises for the core but you don’t expect me to give away all of my tricks, right. ;)

Fitness classes like tai chi, yoga, or pilates are excellent ways to increase core muscle strength. These can be very intense and not everyone feels they can find the time to go to classes like these. But our core is the key to good physical health and it is so commonly weak in western society that everyone should take a some time every day and strengthen theirs a little.

Thanks for reading,
Dr. Ben

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