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What is "The Core"
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What Is “The Core”?

Marty O'Shea



~By Marty O’Shea, P.T



As a New Year has begun and winter slowly loses its grip on us all, many of us have started to think about fulfilling those New Year’s resolutions and have headed to the health club or signed up for an exercise class in hopes of shedding those extra pounds. As you research the many forms of exercise or different types of exercise classes out there, you may run across a word that resonates across the many different exercise disciplines from yoga to Pilates. That word, “core” is touted as the mystical set of muscles that when exercised can solve many issues from chronic low back pain to improving athletic performance.

          What is the “core” and why are there so many different ways to exercise it? Well, let us start with which muscles make up the “core”. There is a debate on which muscles are part of the core but in general the “core” includes any muscle that attaches to the low back or pelvis and can effect stability of or movement of the trunk. I have broken them down into key muscle groups.

           Three of the key muscle groups include the Abdominals, the Low Back/Paraspinals, and the Hip musculature which include the gluts, deep hip rotators and hip flexors. Some will debate that the pelvic floor muscles and other muscles that don’t fit any of these categories such the Latissimus Dorsi should also be included in the Core. Because you can see why with so many different muscles involved, there can be many different approaches to exercising the core. For the sake of brevity, I am going to focus on just one of these groups.  

           The Abdominals are one of the most exercised group of muscles in the body. Since grade school gym class all of us have at one point had to perform a sit up. The abdominals are actually a set of four different muscles. The rectus abdominis, the internal and external obliques and the transverse abdominis. The first three mentioned help us primarily with bending our trunk forward or twisting our torso from side to side. They can also assist in helping to stabilize the spine when performing movements with the extremities but the primary abdominal muscle tasked with controlling the spine is probably the least well known and the most misunderstood.    The transverse abdominis is the deepest of the abdominals and is orientated in a side to side direction versus the other three, which are orientated in more of an up and down direction. Because of this unique alignment, and because it is the only abdominal muscle to have a direct attachment to the spine itself, it acts as the torso’s internal corset by pulling the abdominal contents in closer the spine while simultaneously drawing tension through the back to help to lock the back down when performing strenuous tasks.

          So with having identified the transverse abdominis as a key muscle involved in stabilizing the spine, it is apparent that exercising or strengthening this muscle is essential to successful “core” program. We have already discussed the unique orientation of the transverse abdominis in relationship to the other abdominals. Recognizing this, it is apparent that the traditional exercises that can be used to strengthen the other abdominals such as sit ups and crunches will be less effective at exercising the transverse abdominis.  When trying to isolate the transverse abdominis, you want to avoid forceful ballistic contracts. Because the transverse abdominis is a stabilizing muscle, it is best isolated with submaximal sustained holding contractions. That means longer holds with less repetition of exercises that emphasize maintaining postures of the spine while moving the extremities will be more impactful in working the transverse abdominis. Secondly, because the transverse abdominis does not attach into the rib cage directly like the other abdominals it is less likely to be recruited as a secondary respiratory muscle. By emphasizing holding of abdominal contraction while breathing normally, you can help to isolate the transverse abdominis from the other abdominals.

           So what specific exercises or exercise philosophy is best for isolating the transverse abdominis? Like with any exercise program, start slow. Just drawing in gently with the abdominals while feeling for tension on the lateral aspect of the abdomen and continuing to breathe normally can help you get a feel for a transverse abdominis contraction. Once you gain more confidence, you can attempt to hold the contraction and stabilize your spine while simultaneously moving your legs.  As an example, while lying on your back, draw in with your abdominals -but not too forcefully- and then alternately lift and lower one leg at a time, making sure that your spine does not arch. Repeat 2 to 3 sets of 10 reps. As with any new exercise program, proceed with caution if you have history of back or hip pain. These exercises have the potential of injury if done incorrectly. Consider a consultation with your physician or physical therapist, if you are not certain. Pilates or Yoga also employs many strategies for isolating the transverse abdominis through exercise for those looking for a structure approach that also will incorporate the other the muscle groups of the core not touched upon in the article.

          Hopefully, this article has given you a better understanding of the “core” and ways to exercise it specifically in relationship to the abdominals. We touched briefly on transverse abdominis and have advocated including it in your exercise program. That being said, it is just one part of a good well rounded program.

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