You will often hear and read terms such as “switch on your core”, “brace your abs” or “lock on your core”. These popular phrases are often used in group exercise classes and by personal trainers. They are supposed to cue you to turn on your abdominal or torso muscles to protect and support your spine.
What often happens, however, is that you brace your core muscles constantly during exercise. This is because you have been led to believe that you are doing the right thing for your back. Constant bracing, however, can lead to the muscles becoming excessively tight and stiff. In particular, the more superficial muscles groups can begin to dominate the movement.
If your abdominal and torso muscles are contracted excessively when you move, it actually becomes hard to move the body. This ‘stiffness’ may be necessary for certain activities, for example, when you perform a plank. But in most cases, your torso needs to be free to move, so that the arms and legs can, in turn, move freely.
A great example of this is to imagine walking around with tense thigh muscles. Your movements actually become somewhat robotic, and the body feels stiff and less mobile.
It is worth remembering that the muscles in your body are elastic and are designed to contract, relax and stretch. When you “brace your abs”, your spine, diaphragm and also your pelvic floor can become compromised. This is because the muscles are not relaxing when they are supposed to.
Another way to think about your core is like an onion. There are many layers. All the layers bind and weave and work together to produce efficient movement. And your core is involved with everything that you do.
As an example, when lifting a weight with your right arm, in front of your body, the muscles of the core work together well to support the spine. You should automatically gently lift the pelvic floor muscles and draw the abdominal and back muscles in a little to support the spine, whilst your breathing is normal and easy. The core muscles are all engaged gently as you lift the weight out in front of the body and then return, and then the core muscles relax. This sometimes isn’t an automatic response and that is where you need guidance.
A strong core is often trained from the inside out.
As your core includes all the muscles of your abdomen, your tummy muscles are the easiest muscles for people to focus on to start learning about and ‘retraining’ their core.
Sometimes we need to give you clues as to how to use your tummy muscles. To guide your core motor control. This involves gently switching on your deep abdominals. That is, pulling your belly button in a little towards your spine. Then lifting your pelvic floor muscles gently. Most importantly you should maintain a natural, comfortable breathing pattern. The muscles then relax at the end of the movement pattern.
The roller is a great tool here as its inherent instability helps you become aware of your abdominal muscles.
The simplest exercise you can do is to lay on your roller in the basic set up position and breathe into your diaphragm. Slowly, quietly. Notice where your lower back is; where your neck and shoulders lie. Move your knees a little, one at a time out to the sides, see what happens in your torso. Move your arms out to the sides, together and one at a time. Again observe what is happening in your torso. Your core will more than likely be working to stop you from falling off.