What is the CORE and why is it so important to strengthen?
“The core” has become a common phrase but many people have only a hazy notion of what it really means, (including some fitness professionals). I would like to tell you precisely what muscles constitute the core, why they are important to activate and strengthen- both separately and together- and what you stand to gain by making core strengthening a core part of your fitness regime.
While there is no one muscle called ‘the core” muscle, there is a group of muscles that when strong and integrated provide a tremendous amount of power, support, injury prevention, healthy joint mechanics and improved internal health and digestion. You may be interested to know that your ‘six pack’ muscle (the rectus abdominus) isn’t one of them!
We’ll start at the bottom- with the pelvic floor muscles. These were made famous by Dr. Arnold Kegel. The muscles of the pelvic floor are somewhat complex so it’s useful to simplify. You can think of them as the bottom of a full grocery bag - in this case the ‘bag’ is your pelvis and the ‘groceries’ are your pelvic organs and intestines. You want the bottom of the bag to be strong so the ‘groceries’ don't fall out! It is important to keep your PF muscles strong for many reasons, such as preventing incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse. With regard to movement, engaging the PF muscles in conjunction with the transverse abdominis greatly helps to stabilize your pelvic bones in a neutral position which in turn contributes to healthy movement at the hip joints.
Your deepest abdominal muscle is called the transverse abdominis (TVA). Itwraps around the lower part of your torso like an internal corset. When you contract it you reduce the circumference of your waist, effectively hugging and supporting your lumbar spine. The upper spine has a ribcage to support and protect it. Your lower spine has your TVA. Many people injure their lumbar spines or strain their lower back muscles because their transverse abdominis muscle isn’t strong enough to support and diffuse the force and load placed on them. An active and strong TVA allows you to move your spine in many directions and rotations with confidence and power. While active, it massages your intestines and organs leading to improved organ function and digestion.
The PF muscles and the TVA are directly effected by breathing. If you breathe well, these muscles will get a certain amount of work naturally. If you don’t breathe well, or tend to hold your breath, they won’t function very well at all. That’s why the diaphragm is another muscle that makes up the core, and can be thought of as the “roof” of the core just as the pelvic floor muscles are the “floor”. Your diaphragm effects your autonomic nervous system. When you have good breathing habits your diaphragm contracts and releases fully and naturally and keeps your autonomic nervous system balanced. Some positive results of this are: your ribs and chest move in their full ranges of motion and remain flexible, your thoracic spine remains flexible, your neck and shoulders don't get overworked (from breathing at least). The opposite is also true: breathe poorly (with only your mouth for instance) or hold your breath and your ribs and chest become inflexible, your thoracic spine becomes stiff, and your shoulder and neck become stiff.
To recap so far: Used together and combined with healthy breathing, your PF muscles and TVA serve to anchor your pelvis for healthy hip movement, support and protect your spine, and promote healthy functioning of your organs, digestive tract and autonomic nervous system.
There are a few more muscles to talk about in order to understand your core fully, but this is a good start!