We hear “engage your core” all the time by our Coaches, but what exactly does that mean? Do we suck in the belly just before a movement? Do we keep it sucked in the entire time? How do we breathe when we are sucking in our abs? This article will answer those burning questions, plus teach you the importance of bracing your core to help us move more effectively.
First, What is Your “Core?”
Your “core” are the muscles that control the position and motion of the trunk over the pelvis, and stabilize the spine for voluntary and involuntary loading. A strong core allows optimal production, transfer and control of force and motion to other areas of the body, and is the basis for good posture. Those with a weak core are much more prone to suffer back injuries, have greater difficulty with basic and advanced exercises, and are less likely to reach their strength potential.
The “Core Box”
Think of your “core” as essentially a box, with each side being several layers thick. It can be divided into front, back, top, and the sides.
On the posterior surface, or the back, the spinal stabilizing muscles (erector spinae, multifidus and latissimus dorsi) run from your shoulder blades, along your spine and back. They are important for segmental stabilization of vertebrae, and are rich in sensory nerves, transmitting continual feedback to the brain regarding loading and position of the spine. These muscles generate gross movement and forces.
The diaphragm muscle forms the top of the “core box”, and is also the primary muscle for breathing. So this is where the breathing part comes in when we teach how to engage our core. There are many recent studies of how important proper breathing is to sports and movement. There will be more articles on this topic in the future.
The outermost layer on the anterior surface or front is the powerful rectus abdominis muscle, which begins at the pubic bone and ends at the sternum. This muscle is activated while doing crunches because it pulls the ribs and the pelvis in and curves the back. This muscle is also used during childbirth, bowel movements, and coughing. Breathing in and holding the rectus abdominis in pulls in the abdomen. When this muscle is exercised and layers of fat disappear from the abdomen, the exposed rectus abdominis muscle creates the look of a “six pack.”
The transverse abdominis (TVA) is also on the front wall with the rectus abdominis but is the deepest layer. The TVA is often referred to as the corset muscle since activation produces a hoop effect similar to cinching a belt around the waist. This contraction pulls in the muscles, stabilizes the low back and pelvis before movement, and increases intraabdominal pressure to help brace the core. Having a strong TVA produces a slimming effect by drawing in the abdominal area. A weak TVA can cause the lower abdomen to pooch out, and allow the pelvis to become anteriorly rotated, an imbalance that can lead to further dysfunctions.
The quadratus lumborum, external and internal obliques connect the front to the back (ie are the sides of the box), while the pelvic floor musculature comprises the bottom of the “box”. These muscles stiffen to support loading and movement, and provide a stable foundation for the body to work from.
So How Do I Engage My Core?
First lets see if you can engage your TVA. You can’t strengthen a muscle you don’t know how to activate.
- Lie on your back with knees bent. Find your Anterior Superior Iliac Spine (the ASIS is the top corner of the hip bone).
- Place a finger on your ASIS bone and then slide the finger an inch toward the belly button.
- “Draw in” the muscle of the TVA (10- 50%) but not maximal effort because that will engage the rectus abdominis. Another example would be to suck your belly button to your spine. It is important to keep breathing as you maintain a nice easy contraction of the TVA.
- You should feel the TVA muscle when you contract it. You should not have any other movement occurring.
Strengthen the TVA
- Perform 3 sets X 10 repetitions with a 3 to 5 second tempo and a 10 second rest between each set, while still breathing normally throughout the exercise.
- Now do the lying TVA activation but lift one leg while bracing the TVA. Don’t hold your breath or bulge your lower abdomen.
- Once you can lift the legs with proper form, lie on your side, and do a clam shell move (keep ankles together and lift your top knee) while maintaining the TVA activation.
- Now work toward bracing the core while walking and moving.
Other Ways to Engage the Core
The various cues for core engagement may vary depending on the specific movement you are doing, but in general, here are a few ways to turn on additional core muscles:
- Scapular Retraction. Press your shoulder blades down and away from your ears as this helps to ‘cap’ the contraction of the abs and engages the core muscles in your back.
- Pelvic Floor Contraction. Think of ‘lifting up’ through the pelvic floor to engage the muscles in the pelvic floor and deepen the contraction of your abdominal muscles.
- Proper Breathing. Use your diaphragm, not only your chest during each breath. Your stomach should also rise and fall with each breath.
- Breath out during the concentric phase (like the upward pushing during a push up)
- Breath in during the eccentric phase (at the top of the pushup and during the initial lowering.
Starting Core Exercises To Develop Strength
There are many core exercise that will help strengthen the entire region and provide life lasting benefits for you. Work your core three times a week on nonconsecutive days for 5 minutes. Start with the first exercises listed below and progress to more difficult ones and you become stronger.
- Dead Bug – Start with keeping knees at 90 degrees and arms elevated. Slowly move one arm back overhead, then the other. Progress to opposite leg and arms moving while building the number of repetitions.
- Quadruped – On hands and knees, slowly extend one leg while maintaining core bracing. Once comfortable, add in the opposite arm. Extend the length of time you can hold each limb. Also add in movement by tucking the raised knee into the the raised elbow, then extending back again.3. Plank – Variations include starting on knees, then progressing to elbows, to straight arms, leg or arm lifts then to moving planks and unstable surfaces such as on a Bosu Ball, or large ball.
4. Side Plank – Variations include starting on a knee, then elbow, then straight arm, then moving arms overhead, and then unstable surfaces.
5. There are many more advanced moves like bicycle crunches, atomic sit ups, V-Ups, Oblique twists, etc. See this Pinterest board for additional core exercises. https://www.pinterest.com/finney2734/core/
A strong core will make your movement patterns more efficient, decrease chances of a back injury, and will enable you to generate more power to your limbs. Your posture will improve and if you have ever experienced bouts of incontinence during jump roping, that too can go away with proper core work. As far as those six pack muscles shining through, these exercises will start you in that direction but six packs are also made in the kitchen.