People often think of the core as the abdominal muscles, but it is far more than that! The core, in a sense, is our trunk area which includes our abdominal muscles, but also our back, and hip muscles that help to stabilize the body during static and dynamic activities. So, strengthening our abdominal muscles is part of it, but don’t forget about the rest of the core musculature, and then learning how to control and activate those muscles to help you.
An article by Chang, Lin, and Lai researched the different training techniques for core strengthening and how they affect low back pain. After looking at several articles they found that all of the different techniques including trunk balance, stabilization, segmental stabilization, and motor control exercises assisted in decreasing low back pain, but that strengthening of the deep trunk muscles provided the best relief. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4395677/
The body is amazing in that all we have to do is strengthen the muscles and the body knows what to do with them, to an extent. Let’s look a little deeper at how to strengthen the core and activate the muscles to better assist us throughout our day and sports.
Why do I Still Have Pain When I Have Been Strengthening My Core?
As I have mentioned in other blog posts of mine, strengthening muscles is only a part of the process. Learning how to activate and control the muscles when we need them is the other, more important part. I’ve seen plenty of athletes that can do a trillion crunches and walk around with a 6-pack, but they still have back, hip, or knee pain.
The best part of training your core is when your brain makes the connection to your body to know how and when to contract your core muscles. This is when we take strain away from our spine, for example, and use our core muscles instead.
An easy example of this is when we are washing dishes and start to feel strain, burning, tightness in our low back because we are in a slightly flexed posture for a prolonged period. If we activate our core muscles while in this position, we take the strain away from our spine and the ligaments holding us up and we use muscles which are made to do this task. Once you are able to actively contract your core and maintain this contraction throughout the task, you will notice decreased back pain and strain.
But How Do I Strengthen and Activate My Core?
The first step to learning how to activate your core is to learn and understand what it should feel like. A couple of different cues that I use to help people is:
Contract your core like someone is going to punch you in the stomach, and hold it.
Brace from your deep core like you’re trying to hold going to the bathroom.
Activate your core like you are trying to press into a belt.
Once you understand how to activate your core, begin to hold that while performing exercises that help to strengthen these muscles. A few of my favorite include:
The next step of your core control journey, and the most important, is to begin contracting these muscles when you are performing stationary household tasks like washing dishes, cooking, brushing your teeth. Progress to dynamic activities such as walking, lifting the laundry basket or groceries, and climbing stairs. The last and final step would be to incorporate the same techniques in your sport during practices so you are able to slow down the movement and work on your form and control.
Personal Experiences With Core Control
As a physical therapist, it is easier for me to be aware of my core, but I am still terrible at it and continue to practice all the time. It first became obvious to me that my core control was not great when I was in the second half of my pregnancy. As my stomach got bigger, my lower back got more and more sore. I realized that in order for our body to maintain its center of mass when we have this huge basketball of a stomach, we lean backwards creating all of this compression at our lumbar spine, smooshing the vertebrae together and causing inflammation and at times, pain.
I had exercised through my entire pregnancy, yet as my stomach got bigger it obviously became harder to contract my core and I found myself relying on my spine and ligaments to accommodate the size. All of this didn’t stop me from trying to remember to contract my core as I was up and about, working, or using the stairs which would provide me with some relief.
Once I had my son, I learned that now that same weight that was once in my belly moved to the outside and I continued to carry him with the same posture and lack of core control. However, with a lot of practice and awareness of core control, I have been able to gain that ability back and have minimal occasions of low back strain.
From a different perspective, when I play volleyball I find that my low back is sore after a lot of serving and hitting. This, again, is putting my spine into a lot of extension and cramming those vertebrae together as I reach up and back to hit the ball. When I am able, I try to work on contracting my abdominal muscles to take the strain off my spine and into the muscles. It also helps to increase my power when hitting by recruiting more muscles.
Are You Struggling With Finding Your Core?
If you are struggling to figure out where your core is or how to contract it or use those muscles to help you throughout the day, I can help! Let’s chat more to discuss what you have going on and how we might be able to work together to get you back to where you want to be and play your sport at your highest level. You can click here to schedule a No-charge consultation with me!