By Courtney White, Registered Physiotherapist
Have you ever wondered what makes up your core, why is it important, or how to safely train your core without getting back pain? Keep on reading to find out these answers and more!
Your core is more than just the muscles that you can see. There is a group of muscles below the big six pack muscles that wrap around you like a corset. Their job is to support you during every movement. This inner unit is like a TRANSFER STATION. To get power generated from your legs all the way to your shoulders, it must pass through the inner core. So, if you do not have proper control over your core, that power will not move between your upper and lower body as smoothly as you want it to.
What Makes Up the Inner Core Unit?
The inner core consists of the following: the diaphragm, the pelvic floor, transversus abdominus (TA), and multifidus. Collectively, these 4 structures create a CORE CANISTER.
Diaphragm: The diaphragm is our primary breathing muscle and it forms the top of the core canister. The diaphragm is the component that has the primary control over the intraabdominal pressure within the canister. It moves up and down as you breathe which changes the space in the abdomen and as a result, influences the pressure within the core canister.
Pelvic Floor: The pelvic floor is a group of muscles that form the bottom of the canister. It supports the weight of all the internal organs within our abdomen, assists with bowel and bladder control, and helps to control the intrabdominal pressure along with the diaphragm. The pelvic floor is partners with the diaphragm. When the diaphragm moves up and down, so should the pelvic floor.
Transversus Abdominis (TA): This muscle connects the top and bottom of the canister as well as creates the front and sides of the core canister. It runs deeper than the external six pack muscles that you can see. Its role is to support your lower back during movement and transmit forces between your upper and lower body.
Multifidus: This muscle forms the back of the core canister and runs along the spine. Multifidus serves as a primary support for the spine, pelvis, and hips.
What Are the Functions of the Core Canister?
- To support the back, pelvis, hips, and trunk during movement
- To serve as a transfer station for power and energy between the upper and lower body
- To assist with bowel and bladder control
- To improve performance during physical activity
How Does the Core Canister Work?
To gain a stronger core overall, it is important to learn how to “pressurize” the core canister. Previously, inner core training has focused largely on tensing the walls of the core canister through focused contractions of TA. Learning how to activate the diaphragm and pelvic floor was often missed or brushed over. More recent evidence now suggests that breath is the driving force behind influencing the intrabdominal pressure. Therefore, the diaphragm is the leader behind pressurizing the core.
When you breathe in, your diaphragm contracts and pushes down into the abdominal cavity which increases the intraabdominal pressure. In response to this increased pressure, the pelvic floor relaxes and lengthens to accommodate the abdominal organs translating downward. During your inhale, the pressure in the front part of the core canister is increased as your belly expands. This is counteracted by multifidus in the back as well as TA which work together to try and keep the intraabdominal pressure evenly distributed. When you breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes and rises which decreases the pressure within the core cannister. As a result, the pelvic floor should normally contract and rise.
How Do We Train the Core Canister?
Many people focus on crunches, planks, and other large abdominal exercises when training the core but negate breathing. Learning to connect your breath with movements is the key to developing a stronger core. It will allow you to control the intrabdominal pressure within the core canister. Exercises like planks and crunches are not necessarily bad exercises as they can be very effective later if you first learn to optimize the control of your core canister.
The first step is to learn how to engage your diaphragm through diaphragmatic umbrella breathing. Once you have achieved this, it is time to add in the pelvic floor so that you learn how to engage your diaphragm and pelvic floor together as a unit, referred to as piston breathing. You can also learn how to connect and activate TA and multifidus to further optimize your control over the core canister. However, it is important to highlight that the goal here is to learn how to change the size of your core canister by recruiting all these muscles together, rather than focusing solely on how to contract each specific muscle. Once you have learned how to control the pressure within the core canister, it is now time to perform bigger movements that require you to maintain control over the canister while doing a larger activity.
Check out our post on our Facebook and Instagram pages (dated May 21, 2020) for exercises you can try at home to increase your control of the core canister!
What Can Happen If You Do Not Have Control Over Your Core?
It is not uncommon to have a weak inner core or lack control over your core canister. This can originate from prolonged sitting and slouching which distorts and changes the shape of the core canister (see part B in Figure 3 below). This positioning leads to breathing through the accessory muscles in your neck and chest, decreasing the engagement of your diaphragm. As you can see in the figure below, this puts a lot of strain on the lumbar spine which can lead to pain and injury. Ideally, your core canister should look something like part A in the figure below where the intraabdominal pressure is equally distributed. Without proper control over your inner core, it makes it very difficult for you to be able to hold your body in a good position during exercise and physical activity. This increases your risk for injury.
Now that you have learned more about what the core is and why it is important, if you have any questions or are interested in setting up an appointment with one of our Physiotherapists, contact us today! We will be happy to help you achieve your goals by developing an individualized treatment plan.
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