The Core

In the health and fitness world we have been a society that has been obsessed with flat stomach’s and ‘six packs’.  I have a good understanding of this all-consuming obsession from the thousands of clients I have trained over the years. When it comes to the part where we talk about a client’s goals, more often than not, references are made to wanting to ‘flatten’ their stomach or to have some type of visible ‘abs’ in their stomach area. This is quickly followed by, the said client, suggesting their program include lots of ‘ab exercises’ to achieve this result.  Now there is nothing wrong with having aesthetic goals around certain parts of our bodies as long as we are realistic with how we go about achieving this.

A basic understanding of the what muscles make up the core and why they are important is a good place to start.

What Muscles Make up the Core:

Without overwhelming you with too much anatomy terminology there are basically 7 major muscles that make up the core (there are some minor ones as well).  The deepest layer of our abdominal muscles are our Transverse Abdominus and these are often referred to as our ‘corset muscles’ these muscles help stabilise our spine and pelvis.  Then we have 2 layers of Oblique muscles the Internal and External Obliques (think like sliding your hands into your front pockets) they control lateral flexion, rotation and other spinal movements.  The topmost or more popularly known muscle is the Rectus Abdominis, which runs vertically in front of your abdomen and are the ones you can visibly see if you are lean (six pack).  It flexes your torso forward like you are doing a crunch.  Last, but certainly not least, is your Pelvic Floor, the back muscles that stabilise your spine (Erector Spinae, Multifidus) and your Diaphragm which assists you with breathing. 

Having a good understanding of the complexity of the Core muscles is important as this allows us to prescribe exercises effectively in order to strengthen these many muscles.  It should be noted that it is not possible to ‘spot reduce’ or reduce body fat from a certain area of your body by doing certain exercises for it.  For example, stomach crunch’s will not make your stomach look smaller or help you reduce fat in this area.  Specific exercises for these areas will however strengthen them.

What are the Benefits to Having a Strong Core:

Better Posture:

Our core muscles wrap around our entire torso including the muscles at the sides of our body and our back.  These muscles help support the spine and stabilise the trunk.  Not only that they help keep us upright which helps improve our posture.  Sitting at a desk all day switches off a lot of our core muscles, a better option is to use a standing desk, sit on a swiss ball or take regular breaks away from your desk.

Better Balance:

 As mentioned, the core is a key stabiliser of the trunk.  Any weakness in any of the 7 core muscles can result in your balance being compromised.  This can lead to an increase in injuries, lower back pain or poor posture. It can also lead to instability of the body as it has to rely on other muscles to assist with balance. 

Protects your Organs:

Our organs are a vital part of our bodies function and a strong core can help protect them and keep them safe.  Organs like your kidneys, spleen, liver and stomach live right underneath your abdominal wall which acts like a shield from the outside elements.  As a result, the stronger your core the better protection from any external force or damage.

Makes Moving Around Easier:

Your core basically underpins every move that you make in everyday life from getting in and out of the car, picking something up off the ground and even rolling over in bed.  You can imagine then, that even the smallest everyday activity can be difficult if you core is weak and not functioning correctly.

Reduces Bodily Pain:

Having a strong core does improve your quality of life dramatically.  A lot of my clients suffer from lower back pain caused by weak muscles in the core and spend a great deal of time and money at Physio’s and Chiro’s in an attempt to get out of pain.  If the core was doing the job it was meant to be doing such as supporting the back and trunk, then the ripple effect would be better movement, posture and balance.

Better Power & Strength:

Executing exercises correctly involves a certain amount of strength in the muscles, especially for big lifts such as squats and deadlifts.  We are only as strong as our weakest muscle and a lot of the times an individual’s core strength is what holds them back from lifting more weight.  The same goes with power, swinging a golf club or a tennis racquet requires a lot of speed and load moving thru the body at once.  If there is a weak link in the chain then this can lead to inefficiencies and injuries.

So Where is the Pelvic Floor?

Before all the males reading this tune out, did you know that you too have a pelvic floor?  The pelvic floor muscles look like a hammock – they’re often referred to as a sling of muscle that runs from the front of the pubic bone to the back of the coccyx (tailbone).  In women, these muscles at the base of the torso support the womb, bladder and bowel. The urinary tract, vagina and anus all pass thru these pelvic floor muscles, so the condition of the muscles in the area directly affects their function.

In men, the pelvic floor supports the bladder and bowel and can affect sexual function.

Why is the Pelvic Floor so Important?

Basically, in both males and females the pelvic floor muscles directly affect your sexual, urinary and bowel functions on a daily basis.  These muscles can be too weak and even too strong (overactive pelvic floor).  In both cases this will have an impact on:

  • Whether you find it hard or easy to pass bowel movements
  • How regularly you urinate and whether you have any leakage
  • Recovery from childbirth or prolapse
  • Sexual pleasure, discomfort or an inability to have sex
  • Core engagement and overall strength

How do I Improve my Pelvic Floor?

If you thought Kegel exercises were just for women, think again!  Find a quiet and private space for 10 minutes where you can focus on your breathing.  As we breathe, the abdomen rises and falls as air enters the diaphragm.  The pelvic floor muscles correspond to our breath, expanding and dropping on inhale and lifting on exhale. Take some time to engage and relax the pelvic floor muscles with each breath mindfully. 

To identify the pelvic floor muscles, stop urination mid-stream or tighten the muscles that keep you from passing gas.  Tighten these muscles for 3 seconds and then relax for 3 seconds.  Try a few of these in a row.  When you get stronger at these try doing them whilst sitting, standing or lying down.

For best results try not to tighten or flex the muscles in your abs, legs or glutes.  Avoid holding your breath, mindful contracting and relaxing is helpful. 

If you continue to have any pain, incontinence, or prolapse issues the assistance and support of a pelvic floor physiotherapist is advised.  For any further erectile or painful sex issues then a counsellor or psychologist with experience in pelvic floor dysfunction can help.  For advice and guidance around strengthening exercises for your core consult a physiotherapist or qualified Personal Trainer in this area.

Exercises for the Core:

Seeking the help of an expert (Physio/PT) in this area is beneficial.  Post-Partum women will need to slowly work back to any kind of impact work as coming back too soon after delivery can weaken the pelvic floor further and cause a prolapse.  In many cases, activation work and learning how to breathe properly using the diaphragm are all essential ingredients before any progressions of exercises should be programmed.  PT’s and Physio’s can perform assessments on clients to see where they are at with their strength in this area.  Please note it it important to perform any core exercises with sound technique as it can cause further injury to these areas.