Have you ever been told to strengthen your core? Either by a Physio or rehab specialist to assist with back pain? Maybe you’re just aware of the word ‘core’ and that (in your opinion) ‘you don’t have one’. Maybe your abs never came back after birth or your pelvic floor literally abandons you at just hearing the word jump. In this post I hope to simplify what ‘Your Core’ is and how you can train it to become stronger and hopefully more efficient. This should help in so many ways, but specifically in alleviating back pain caused by poor posture and strengthening a pelvic floor that won’t improve without some focus.
At one time the core was mistakenly thought to refer to just the abdominals or your six pack. We now know it to be so much more. Further, only training ‘the abs’ can contribute towards exasperating posture related pain because it creates imbalance. Put simply… only training the abs means you’re only training the front of the body. Not also training the opposing muscles at the back or even those deep stabilising muscles creates imbalance.
If you think of it like an apple, the core runs central in your body and pretty much holds you in place. It is way bigger than ‘your abs’ and way more important than your six pack. It describes your muscles around your: spine, hips and pelvis providing strength and stability. As such it includes: The deep muscles of the spine (transversus abdominis, multifidus), the abdominals, and the gluteal muscles. The diaphragm and the pelvic floor muscles also form part of this complex system and together, your core is sometimes described as a “corset” that acts to: control the spine, provide stability and aid in the control of your limbs.
So are we agreed your Core is pretty important?
So how do you develop your core?
Well …one way is by not training your core! What?
What I mean is not ‘specifically’ training your core with 20 ab crunches and then a 40 second plank followed by another 20 oblique crunches. Any exercise you do that involves a coordinated approach of all these core muscles works your core. So for example, using free weights in any of my online workouts requires a coordinated approach to: lift the weight, stabilise the joints correctly, control of the movement, stay upright or bent over or lying in whatever is the correct position is. You will always hear me say ‘BRACE YOUR CORE’ and by that I mean engage all those deep stabilising muscles around the spine, hips and abs to keep the correct form. Draw the shoulders back and down in place. Soften the knees and squeeze those glutes. If you didn’t ‘brace your core’ (even if you don’t think you have one) you would just flop over…
In my workouts I am constantly on at you regarding technique – whether that’s a simple bicep curl or a more complicated weighted burpee – correct technique is a beautiful way of positioning you in a way the muscles can work efficiently to create that movement. This gives them the best chance to engage – correctly – and use the core (your engine) to do its job. When you’re experiencing back pain it is often because the core isn’t consciously engaged and you’re swinging those weights around without a care for what muscles are moving your limbs.
Which brings me to point 2 – consciously engaging your core
An untrained core cannot work efficiently without being trained. Your brain can help this by consciously telling it to engage each time you move. You can do this in everyday life such as bracing your core whilst driving and feeling some tension as you go around corners to consciously squeezing that belly button to the spine and drawing up through your pelvic floor at the start of your workouts. It’s not uncommon for people to have to remember to brace their core. But the more you tell it to, the more it will become a subconscious habit. Again like driving you have to learn… you had to tell your body what to do before it became second nature.
So next time you’re swinging your weights around remember to consciously tell your muscles to engage.
Another way to develop the core is Pilates
I think everyone at some point in their life if they’ve seen a rehabilitation specialist such as a: GP, Physio or Osteopath will have been referred to Pilates to help strengthen their core. Pilates is such a fantastic form of exercise that I can’t rave about it enough. In fact, at my studio in Cheshire anyone who is on a personal training plan with me gets complimentary pilates classes as part of their memberships. That’s because I believe everyone can benefit from this wonderful discipline when it comes to: moving better, with more alignment and with less pain.
Pilates focuses on moving from the core and without getting too complicated brings in the element of breath work which goes a long way to developing the core. Just the very mention of pilates and ‘take a deep breath’ can bring about a tall stance with shoulder blades drawn back and down away from the ear. Try it. Try taking a deep breath now without automatically wanting straighten up a little.
Throughout any pilates class – in person or online – they focus on the principles of pilates including centring, control, alignment and breathing – all (in part) contributing to strengthening your core and lengthening tight muscles. Centring in particular focuses on those deep stabilising muscles and creating all movement from this engine. When combined with lateral breathing we can start to create intra abdominal pressure and a conscious movement whilst engaging our core. At first keeping those deep stabilising muscles engaged is hard enough, but keeping them engaged while breathing and movement can take time.
Often people think Pilates is easy – until they try it. Pilates is an art and a movement that requires control and concentration. By slowing down the movements it highlights imbalances and where you might not before have been engaging your core to move.
So… my advice would be to try Pilates.
Sorry that this post doesn’t give you ‘take home’ exercises to work on your core, but hopefully (if you read this far) you now understand training the core isn’t just about throwing a few planks in to your workout. Don’t get me wrong, there are exercises you can do to develop strength and I’ll put together another post on those. For now though concentrate on:
- Great technique in your workouts, every day movement and life.
- Being more conscious in everything you do and squeeze that core and pelvic floor
- Try some pilates classes – online or in person – I think everyone should have pilates in their life.