“Core stability” is a term that many people have heard, some understand, but very few actively train. You might think that core training is all about sit-ups and getting a flat stomach but it is much more than that.
What exactly is “core strength” or “core stability?”
Your core is made up of three main muscles: Around the back there is Multifidus, around the front there is Transverse Abdominus, and underneath there is the Pelvic Floor.
The unifying feature of these core muscles is that the fibres run AROUND the body; not up and down the body, or diagonally across the body like the other abdominal muscles. This feature means that when Multifidus, Transverse Abdominus, and Pelvic Floor contract together they provide a girdle of strength around the back. This also raises the intra-abdominal pressure which stabilises forces around the intervertebral discs.
Why does core strength matter so much anyway?
Core strength is important for normal co-ordinated movement. You may not notice it, but prior to any movement of your legs your core muscles contract. This suggests that these core muscles anticipate dynamic forces that may act on the lumbar spine and stabilise the area prior to any movement. The timing and co-ordination of this muscle contraction is also very significant.
This matters a for back pain.....
Let’s use an example. A lady who has just given birth will have very slack Transverse Abdominus, slack Pelvic Floor and an overworked Multifidus. Her standing posture is one with a hollow back, and when she lifts she has abnormal core muscle balance. In the coming weeks she is unable to exercise as she is looking after her baby, so her back muscles also become weaker. She develops a disc injury and low back pain.
Let’s use another example. A man who was once a builder and did not suffer any back pain, retires and becomes a little unfit and overweight. He has poor core strength which allows his standing low back posture to hollow. In this position his spine has little muscular support and so his weight is carried on the joints and ligaments in his back. Over time the ligaments in his discs may fail and cause a disc bulge, or his joints may become arthritic and cause sciatica.
It also matters for sports performance….
Let’s use an example of a runner. They don’t train their core, and so have poor core stability. They keep running but don’t get any quicker, and are slow up hills. Why? Because when they run the core muscles are not strong enough to limit torso rotation. Their power transfer is wasted by rotating their torso too much, and instead they consciously try to stabilise this rotatory movement by stiffening their arm swing. They have stiff and painful shoulders during a run.
Should I just do some sit-ups?
Applying what we now know about the core, the difference between core and abdominal training is that you’re not just targeting the front side of the body but the back side as well. By definition, the deep-trunk muscles act as "stabilisers" and are not involved in producing movements. They involve static, or isometric, contractions. Furthermore, they must act as stabilisers continuously throughout everyday activities as well as fitness and sport activities, and so require very good endurance of low-level forces. These muscles do not need to be very strong, but they must be correctly coordinated and capable of working continuously. In addition, we want these stabiliser muscles to act by holding the lumbar spine in the neutral position, which is the correct alignment of the pelvis that allows for the natural 'S' curve of the spine. These characteristics underpin the following deep-trunk muscle training program.
What are the best workouts for building core strength?
Good - so you want to improve your core stability!
If you want to find a class then Pilates is a great core strength class. Nordic Walking works on dynamic core strength is a great option too.
Otherwise for home exercises, the aim of core stability training is to effectively recruit the trunk musculature and then learn to control the position of the lumbar spine during dynamic movements.
The foundation of all core-stability training is learning to co-contract the Transverse Abdominus and Multifidus muscles effectively.
Start by lying on your back with knees bent
Your lumbar spine should be neither arched up nor flattened against the floor, but aligned normally with a small gap between the floor and your back. This is the "neutral" lumbar position you should learn to achieve
Breathe in deeply and relax all your stomach muscles
Breathe out and, as you do so, draw your lower abdomen inwards as if your belly button is going back towards the floor. Pilates teachers describe this as "zipping up", as if you are fastening up a pair of tight jeans
Hold the contraction for 10 seconds and stay relaxed, allowing yourself to breathe in and out as you hold the tension in your lower stomach area
Repeat 5-10 times
Once you have mastered the abdominal hollowing lying on your back, practice it lying on your front, four-point kneeling, sitting and standing. Learning to recruit the TA and MF muscles correctly in various positions can take anything from one session to one month or more. Once perfected it is time to move onto more advanced core stability exercises. These might be static positions like the planks, dynamic controlled movements like “superman”, unstable static/dynamic exercise on a Swiss ball, controlling explosive movements like box jumping. Your practitioner can help to prescribe the exercises that are appropriate for you, your condition, and what you want to achieve.
Some good core exercise ideas can be found here.... start easy, get the techniques right, and then progress!
Beginner floor core exercises https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrWbmJPscFI
Beginner planks... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZtVcFJ1hNc
Swiss ball exercises for runners.... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nVKtbn1MEk
Advanced dynamic core stability exercises... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxWkv1paQGc