Chances are that at some point in your life, someone has told you to ‘brace/engage/contract your core.’ What exactly does this mean though? And why are you instructed to do this so often before and during exercises? Let’s dig a little deeper into what the ‘core’ is, why it’s so important, and finally how to turn it on!
Many people think of the ‘core’ as your abdominal muscles or six-pack abs. This is true but really only part of the story. The core is not only your abs, but your entire trunk from your chest down to your pelvis. Think of the core as a cylinder or a canister comprised of a top, bottom, front, and back.
- The top is your Diaphragm, your umbrella or dome-shaped breathing muscle that goes up and down with breathing.
- The front of your canister is your abdominals and specifically your deepest abdominal muscles called your Transverse Abdominals. These muscles run horizontally and are like a corset for your stomach and low back!
- The back of the core are the Multifidus which are the tiny muscles that help stabilize your spine and prevent too much movement between each of your spinal segments.
- The bottom of the core is your Pelvic Floor which is a group of muscles arranged like a bowl that support your pelvic organs (your bladder, rectum, and for some the vagina and uterus) and help with urinary and fecal leakage and sexual function.
These ‘Core 4’ muscles (the diaphragm, multifidus, transverse abdominals, and pelvic floor) work together to form a pressure system within your body. Using pressure, we are able to increase our strength while doing certain tasks and also perform functional tasks without break down. Think of when you lift something really heavy. Oftentimes people will hold their breath while doing this as a simple way to increase their strength during the movement by way of increasing pressure within their system.
Breakdowns in your pressure system in your core, however, are the cause of many a complaint and reasons why people come to Physical Therapy. This is because of too much pressure in one area without the strength to support that pressure. Too much pressure on the back of the core? This can lead to low back pain or a disc herniation. Too much pressure in the front of the core? Diastasis recti and hernias. Too much pressure on the bottom? Pelvic organ prolapse, urinary leakage, or accidental passage of gas. Yikes! This is why the core is so important. It is vital that we have a balance within our pressure system and are able to use our ‘core’ to help stabilize our bodies while moving, but at the same time an imbalance or weakness in this pressure system can cause some frustrating (and sometimes embarrassing!) issues.
Now that you know that the core is more than just your abdominal muscles, it should be easy to understand why just doing crunches is not enough to strengthen your whole core. There are many ways that you can strengthen your core but the first step is being able to perform a brace. This is done by systematically turning on all of your muscles that comprise your core. Let’s try it!
Lay on your back on a firm surface.
Take a deep breath in and ensure that your breath is reaching your belly, your pelvic floor, and back (for more info and an in-depth look into breathing, check out my post on breathing!).
As you exhale, perform the following:
- As your belly button falls toward the ground with your exhale, think about contracting your lower abdominals like someone is cinching a seatbelt across your hips and low abdominals, gently pulling it tighter and your hip bones drawing together. Be sure to keep your ribs down while you draw your belly button toward your spine just an inch.
- Gentle draw your pelvic floor muscles up and in as if you are holding in urine and holding in gas at the same time. Feel a lift from the back where your anus is and a compression/squeeze in the front where your vagina or penis is. Only squeeze and lift with about 10-15% of your force without squeezing your butt or inner thighs.
- Now imagine there is a zipper running from your tailbone up your spine. Imagine someone is zipping up that zipper, shortening the space between your tailbone and the nape of your neck. Imagine gently arching your lower back away from the ground without actually arching your back. Maintain a neutral spine position (a small amount of arch without being completely pressed flat against the ground).
Now inhale and allow all those muscles to relax again prior to initiating this sequential bracing technique on the next exhale.
This technique is called performing an ‘Abdominal Brace’ or a ‘Core Brace’ and is how you truly engage all the muscles that make up your core. This simple exercise can be done 20 times in a row as its own exercise or as a warm up prior to performing an exercise routine to get your core primed and ready to stabilize your body. This bracing technique is also perfect to perform during repetitions of simple exercises such as bridges, clamshells, or bodyweight squats. Now you know what someone is asking you to do when they ask you to ‘tighten your core!’
If you have symptoms of an imbalance in your core including but not limited to low back pain, sciatica, urinary or fecal leakage, pelvic organ prolapse (feelings of heaviness or like something is falling out), pelvic pain, diastasis recti, or abdominal weakness, don’t hesitate to call our clinic to schedule time with a Physical Therapist. Call Life’s Work PT at 503 295 2585 or send us a message at email@example.com. For more information on how to find a good physical therapist in your area read our blog How to Find a Good PT or visit aaompt.org.