Understanding the Core

July 28, 2022

We have all been told to tighten or to engage the core during an exercise class. But what do those phrases really mean? What should you be feeling with the core is ‘engaged’? And how does the core ‘activate’? This blog will break down all these questions to help you understand the core and how to use it as efficiently and effectively as possible.

What is the core?

The core is actually a combination of four different parts of the body located in the trunk and spine.

Starting from the top is the diaphragm. This is a dome-shaped muscle that assists in inspiration and expiration. When you inhale, the diaphragm flattens, allowing the lungs to fill with air. When you exhale, the diaphragm returns back to its domed shape. 

The transverse abdominis (TA) are deep core muscles that run horizontally around your lower abdomen. They are located under the rectus abdominis (6 pack muscles). The TA is constantly active, but it only works at about 10% most of the time, allowing constant support for the body without fatiguing.

The pelvic floor is located at the base of the pelvis. These muscles create a hammock shaped structure to support the uterus, pelvis and everything that sits above! These muscles need to be very strong in order to support the whole weight of the trunk, but they also need to be able to relax, which can be tricky.  

The multifidus makeup the final piece of the core puzzle. They are tiny muscles that surround each vertebrae of the spine. Their job is to stabilise the spine and stiffen with anticipated load. Understanding the role of these muscles is significant in knowing how to engage our core correctly.

How do these muscles work together?

It’s absolutely amazing how these four sections of the body work simultaneously together, creating support and stability with every movement we make. I’ll use an example of how the core is ‘activated’ during an exercise.  

Let’s use the good old plank for instance! The body will anticipate that the trunk and spine will be placed under load in the plank position, therefore, a couple of cool things will start to happen.  

The TA will start to tighten, the pelvic floor will also start to contract slightly, the multifidus will become more rigid to support the spine and the diaphragm will move with the breath. All these actions create intra-abdominal pressure, which is a fancy way of saying that they will do their best to minimise the amount of spare space there is within the inside of the body. This creates the most stability for the body, protecting it from injury and allows the more superficial muscles to only do what they need as they are designed for more explosive movements, not stability and endurance. Understanding how these muscles work together is important in ensuring we use our core effectively.

What should you feel?

This is a question I get asked all the time as a Pilates instructor. If we are talking about the deep core, you honestly shouldn’t feel much as they work in the background. But, if one of those pieces to the puzzle isn’t working correctly, then we must work a little harder to ‘wake it up’.  

If you are doing specific deep core exercises then you may feel a tightening of the lower abdominals (which is actually your TA) and a ‘lifting’ of the pelvic floor. Engaging the muscles of the core appropriately can assist in gaining the most benefits during your workouts.

How do I activate the core?

There are many different ways to activate certain parts of the core. Let’s start with the TA. Imagine the two bones at the front of the pelvis slowly drawing together. This will automatically pull in your bellybutton activating the TA. You could just also focus solely on drawing in the belly button, but not 100%. Think more about 30% effort. An important fact to know is that TA can only activate (on a higher level) for about 10-15 seconds before dropping back to its normal state, so you need to keep reminding yourself to re-activating it. This is why instructors will constantly cue drawing ‘belly button to spine’ during the class.

A simple way to activate the pelvic floor is to imagine yourself stopping a number one mid-stream! But again, not at 100%! Think a 30% effort for about 5-10 seconds at a time. Once you’ve completed a few rounds, add in the TA activation at the same time. 

The diaphragm moves with the breath so it’s important to always be breathing during movement and core activations! And inhale breath usually works well as a preparation and exhale to engage all the core muscles together. Once you can activate the TA and the pelvic floor with an exhale breath, try to take several breaths whilst holding the TA and pelvic floor. Remember to always relax the TA and pelvic floor in between sets so the body can reset. It also helps you to recognise the difference between the core being ‘on’ and in ‘background mode’.  

Lastly, the multifidus. Now these tiny spinal muscles can’t be as easily ‘switched on’ like the TA or pelvic floor. But a simple way to wake them up is to sit/stand up straight! Correcting spinal posture will ensure the multifidus are in the right orientation to efficiently support the spine through any movement.

The most important note is that your core needs to be able to provide support not just through static holdings (like a plank) but through movement too! We are walking, running, twisting and bending humans that require a whole lot of movement to live our lives! The strongest core is a core that can handle anything! This is why Pilates is so fantastic! Pilates challenges the core through all types of movements that relate to everyday activities and tasks.

If you ever have any questions about the core, make sure to ask your instructor as they can provide you with even more tips and tricks to ensure your core is working correctly and efficiently.

Click here to read our previous blog about Pilates and its role in maintaining a healthy spine.

Wanting to get more out of your Pilates classes? Read our top tips here.

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