Let's Talk about the Core
Updated: Jun 20, 2022
First things first- what is the core? We hear it all the time, want a flat tummy? Do abs. Back pain? Strengthen your core. Struggling with a skill? Engage your core. But what does this mean and how do we train it?
Not Just Abs:
While we often think of the core as the fancy washboard abs in the front of the tummy, but is so much more than that! Our core actually refers to the combination of muscles in the torso that coordinate together to protect our internal organs, stabilize our spine, and transfer force through the body. While other parts of the body have more bony structures to provide support and stability, the front, top and bottom of our abdomen has muscle.
We can think of the core like a pop can. The combination of force from the top and bottom of
the can, plus the surrounding sides pushing in, maintain pressure to keep the bubbles in the pop in the can. In the same way, with our diaphragm and pelvic floor on the top and bottom, and the obliques and abdominals surrounding, our core muscles contract together to create pressure in the abdominal cavity. This pressure stabilizes the spine, protects our internal organs, and connects coordinated movement of our upper and lower extremities.
Keeping in mind here that the definition of the core is not universally agreed upon, let's talk about these muscles and their roles (If the nitty gritty anatomy isn't your jam, skip ahead to Not Just Crunches)
This is one of our deepest core muscles. From the bottom of the ribs to the top of the pelvic bones, and inserting into connective tissue in the front of the abdomen, the transverse abdominis functions basically as a corset. It's job is not to create movement of the body like most of our muscles do, but rather, it contracts to cinch in and create pressure in the abdominal cavity.
Internal & External Oblique
These muscles make the sexy "V" that we all know and love. Their jobs are rotation of the torso and side bending. The obliques are super important for ANY skill involving rotation of the body, as well as static skills that put the body in an off balanced position, such as flags, and single arm handstands.
These are the ab muscles that we all want, that make up the 6-pack. This muscle come from the bottom of the sternum and middle of the ribs, all the way down to our pubic bone. It's job is to tilt the pelvis backward, and the ribs downward, compressing the abdominal wall and flexing (think rounding) the spine.
We know the diaphragm functions for breathing, but we can often forget the implication of that for our core! When the diaphragm contracts, it pulls the ribs down to increase the size of our ribcage, letting the lungs fill with air (i.e. our inhale). It forms the top of our "pop can", providing downward pressure.
Now, this is a whole whack of muscles, but for our purposes here, we're talking about them together. They form the bottom of the core, exerting upward pressure, and contributing to stabilizing the pelvis.
These are little muscles between our vertebrae that function to stabilize
are spine. Depending on the context, some of our bigger muscles that function for the same purpose, such as the erector spinae or quadratus lumborum, can be included in the definition of the core.
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Not Just Crunches!!!
So now that we understand the core as a whole, let's talk about what the core does for us.
First up, the core coordinates together to create pressure in the abdomen to stabilize the spine. We can refer to this as "bracing", and we want to be able to create and maintain a stiff brace. When our core is braced, it allows for 2 things:
1. Safe Energy Absorption
When the core is properly braced, forces that are put through it are able to be more evenly distributed to and absorbed by the muscles. This means that rather than forces being unevenly placed to a single joint or muscle group, or excessively through the joints of the spine, forces are distributed and absorbed more evenly and safely. This applies whether the force is from a landing off a vault, a back squat, or catching a drop on your aerial apparatus
2. Efficiency of Movement.
We can think of the core are the link between our upper and lower extremities. During movement, as we are creating force and moving it through the body, if our core is not braced and working together, we can "leak" that force. This means that rather than all the force being transferred and augmented as it goes through the body, from upper to lower extremity or vise versa, that force will instead be absorbed and released before it can be transferred. This leads to an inefficiency of movement, and an inability to perform our movements as well as we could have with all the potential force. This is a little more complicated so let's put it into an example:
Take a my beats here: I am losing energy by not engaging my core glutes properly, and therefore I end up stopping my motion. In the second half of the video, you can see that I am working my body together, and can get more power and height into the movement.
Same with these push ups: without a strong core brace, when I try to push up, my force doesn't get translated up efficiently, but gets lost throughout my movement. This makes it harder for me to get all the way up and requires more force for me to finish the movement. I end up compensating with my hip flexors to get my hips back in the air. When I keep my core engaged, my whole body can move easily together.
Secondly, the individual muscles of the core allow for certain movements, specifically:
The rectus abdominus is our prime mover here, bringing the ribs down and the rotating the pelvis back to lift the hips. This helps us in hollow body positions, leg lifts and inverts, and in tucking and piking acrobatic elements. Think about the quick tucking motion needed in a back tuck, or about the rounding of the spine needed in a straddle inversion.
Trunk Rotation and Anti-Rotation
Here is where our obliques shine. We rotate our torso and use these muscles in twisting acrobatic or aerial movements. We also use the muscles of the core to maintain a neutral position against rotational forces. This means providing stability when forces, e.g. gravity, are trying to rotate the torso.
Trunk Side Flexion
This is when we close the gap between the shoulder and hip of the same side. We use side flexion in elements such as windmills on silks, meathooks and arm breakers, cartwheels and other side moving acrobatic elements. Just like anti-rotation, the core provides stability to maintain a neutral spine against forces that try to side bend the body.
Why Do We Care?
Understanding core function and anatomy is important so that we can properly train not just the core itself, but also how to train it.
A lack of core strength increases our risks for back pain, and overall injury. When we lack core control or core strength, our bodies will either not be able to perform the movements we are asking them to, or we end up compensating with other muscles to create that stability instead.
Compensations, such as only using the hip flexors to lift the legs, or using the lats to create stability in the torso, can keep us from optimizing our skills as the body isn't working optimally together, and can lead to injury in the compensating muscles that are now working twice as hard.
Not to worry though, in my next blog post, I'm talking all about how to activate and strengthen the core.
Want to add strength training into your or your athletes' routine, message me here and let's create a plan specific for you!