By Dawn Myers, physical therapist at Baystate Wing Hospital in Palmer, 413-370-5254
In the world of fitness, the phrase “core stability” is the new buzzword. It's being hyped on the radioin fitness magazines, and on TV from talk shows to news’ broadcasts to infomercials -- but do you know what core stability is?
Core stability refers to your body’s ability to support and stabilize your spinal column. The core muscles are those muscles that are located deep in the back and stomach, and they work together to provide stability to the spine allowing you to perform manual tasks safely and efficiently.
Core muscles are numerous and run the entire length of your torso. They attach to your spine, pelvis, and shoulder blades. Weakness in these muscles can place you at a higher risk for injury.
4 Core Muscle Groups
Your core muscles are hidden beneath the superficial muscles that most people typically train. There are four primary muscle groups that make up the core:
- The transversus abdominus creates a vacuum when contracted that pulls your abdomen in, producing intra-abdominal pressure and stability.
- The diaphragm helps you to breathe. When you inhale properly, it pushes out your gut, also creating core stability.
- The pelvic floor muscles work with the fibers of the transversus abdominus. When they work together, they have a greater impact than when they work separately.
- The multifidus muscles run the entire length of the spine and provide stability to the segment that they are attached to. Typically, the multifidus runs and controls 2-3 vertebrae. It is thought that these muscles are the first to atrophy and stop working properly after a spinal injury.
The muscles of your core are often times compensated for by the visible, more commonly trained external muscles such as the obliques and the rectus abdominus. This can be a problem, because your external muscles are meant to move you, not to hold you up.
If the external muscles are busy holding you up, you will not be able to use them to help you move in a safe and efficient manner. This can lead to many issues, including injuries, lack of power, poor posture, poor form, difficulty holding your water and balancing.
Testing Your Core
So how do you know if your core is working as it should? Try asking yourself some questions:
- Can you do 100 sit-ups with little effort but you always find yourself avoiding planks?
- Do you have trouble keeping good form throughout an activity?
- Do you have good posture?
- Have you been told by a voice instructor that you breathe wrong, and when they try to help you correct it, they can’t?
All of these can be related to decreased core strength, endurance, and stability.
Strengthening Your Core
There are many exercises that can help you to re-educate and strengthen your core, and surprisingly, sit-ups are not one of them.
To find out the best exercises for you, try consulting the people you may already know. If you belong to a gym, talking to one of the trainers may be helpful. If you are in school, try your gym teacher, coach, or athletic trainer. If you are active in your local senior center and they have an exercise class, the instructor may be able to tell you which of the exercises you are doing in class help your core.
If you are new to exercise, or if you are nursing an injury or are in pain from a previous injury, you should consult your doctor before initiating an exercise program. Your doctor may then give you clearance to begin a program, or they then may refer you to physical therapy for further evaluation.
Core stability is essential for efficient mobility. It can help protect you from injury. It can help you participate in your sport of choice at a higher level. It can promote good posture, which encourages better balance, bone health, and ease of breathing. Everyone can benefit from a stronger core.