Different people have different definitions of the core.
Generally, your core is known as the area between your hips and your shoulders. It refers to the many abdominal, lower back and hip muscles that surround your spine and keep your trunk upright. It includes transversus abdominus, the internal and external obliques, rectus abdominus, erector spinae, multifidus, the diaphragm, the pelvic floor, longissimus, quadratus lumborum and the glutes. I like to include the butt muscles because they have such an important part to play in movement.
Your core is involved in everything that you do. The core muscles align your spine, ribs and pelvis and resist static and dynamic forces.
Your core muscles allow you to move your spine and torso forwards (flexion), backwards (extension), and side to side (lateral flexion) as well as to rotate. If you utilise these movements of flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation, in your exercises as well as compound movements, like squats, presses and pulls, you will create a well rounded exercise program that will engage and improve your core.
What is “core stability”?
In the 1990’s “core stability” became very trendy. The assumption was that certain muscles were far more important for stabilisation of the spine than others. Namely, transversus abdominus (Ta). It was thought that if your Ta was weak it could lead to back pain. It was also thought that the core muscles were a unique group of muscles that worked independently of the other trunk muscles. That a strong core would prevent injury. It was also assumed that there was a relationship between core stability and back pain. A recent meta analysis by Smith et al concluded that there is “strong evidence to show that core stabilisation exercises are no more effective than any other form of active exercise in the long term “.
We also now appreciate that ‘core stability’ and ‘core strength’ are not the same. We should really be talking about core motor control.
So what does “core motor control” mean?
Greg Dea and Rod Harris have summarised it succinctly; “movement can be viewed as being clean and easy or dirty and difficult and we (as physios) step in to correct when it becomes dirty and difficult.”
As an example, if you have to think about your core, every time, before you bend over to pick a toy up off the floor, something is wrong. The problem is that the instant you get distracted you forget about your core. Training conscious core control should not and is not required. It is useful initially. But core motor control is reflex driven, not consciously driven. We have to leave the best computer (aka our brain) to do what it does so well in a way that we could never coach.
So as a physio, my role is to decrease any pain and mobility restrictions that you may have so that the exercises I give you can then challenge your ability to use that reflex. I then look at how you perform that exercise and assess if it is “clean and easy” or “dirty and difficult”. If it is deemed “dirty and difficult” then I need to cue the processing occurring ie the timing and sequencing so that it is organised in a way that produces a better movement …….so the movement becomes “clean and easy”.
So where does that leave us?
If you want to train your core, just exercise. If you have pain, just move. You may need guidance at first to improve your core motor control so that the quality of your movement becomes “clean and easy”. For some hints see correct core activation. But ultimately, you want your core to fire automatically.
If you don’t change “dirty and difficult” movement then you are working harder and harder each time you repeat the movement. You are inefficient. Fatigue will probably come on sooner and you increase your risk of injury.
And what about Core Exercises?
Core exercise is any exercise that challenges the muscles that make up the torso, spine and pelvis. These muscles are the base of support for nearly all movements and actions. You could probably call any exercise in which the body is not being supported a core exercise. For example, instead of doing a bench press on a bench or a machine, use a foam roller or a swiss ball. On the roller, doing the same bench press requires you to activate muscles in the stomach, spine, hips and pelvis to balance and support the body. Similarly, in a push up, the back and abdominal muscles must contract to keep the spine straight as you use your shoulder girdle and chest to lower the body.
The point of core exercises is to train the many large and small muscles that help to move and support the spinal column and pelvis. These muscles may then have an improved ability to efficiently move the body when forces are applied to it ( like bending, reaching and twisting ) during simple tasks in every day life. Hopefully minimising injury. The last thing you want is to hurt your back when you bend down to pick up your child or grandchild. If your core muscles are working well then there is less chance of sustaining an injury from an everyday task.
Core exercises can and should be incorporated into every workout you perform. And, if you are training all the major body areas such as your chest, back, shoulders and legs regularly, then your core will more than likely be being trained too.