Core Strength: What does it actually mean?
Everyone talks about it. Everyone knows it’s important. Everyone wants it.
But what does “Core Strength” even mean?
Is it rippling abs? A 6-pack? Do you get it by doing approximately 1 million crunches? Or holding a plank for 5 minutes?
And hey, what IS your core?
Let’s start there.
When you hear the words core strength, you probably think about your abs. And that’s part of it! But it’s a little more complicated. Let’s break it down, and talk a little anatomy.
If you look at this skeleton, you see that there isn’t a whole lot right in the middle, between your rib cage and your pelvis. This is why we can move so much and do weird shit like twist, and touch our toes, go upside down, and do a backbend.
Now, obviously, we are not just skeletons. We are covered in muscles, and that’s what keeps us from collapsing into a pile of bones. Your core is all of the muscles that are in that empty area between your rib cage and pelvis. They have two main jobs: to stabilize your spine, and to move your spine. And that’s where things start to get interesting.
In Pilates, we talk about the inner unit, or the power house. This is the innermost layer of these muscles. It is made up of the transversus abdominus, the diaphragm, the pelvic floor, and the multifidus. Yes, I will be testing you on this!
The diaphragm sits at the bottom of your rib cage. The pelvic floor is inside your pelvis. The transversus wraps around your waist connecting from the spine to your belly button, and from the base of your ribs to your pelvis, and the multifidus runs along the spine. Altogether, they make kind of a canister. Inside the canister is all your organs. When all of these muscles are working well together, they provide support for your spine, and structure to connect your rib cage and pelvis. They don’t move the spine, they just tighten up to hold everything in when you’re moving. They’re like a corset, made of meat! You made it for yourself!
Want to feel your transversus? Try this:
Lay on your back with your knees bent. Take the first two fingers on each hand and find your hip bones. Then slide them in about an inch and gently press down. Now, take a deep breath and as you exhale, imagine that you’re trying to draw your hip bones towards each other. Try not to bare down, or clench. You can also imagine that you’re wearing a wet T-shirt and you don’t want it to touch your skin. Remember, it’s like a corset!
Do you feel something working under your fingers? That’s your transversus. Ideally, whenever you are moving, it’s on.
That’s the inner unit. But what about the rest of it?
On top of your transversus is two more layers of abdominal muscles. Your internal and external obliques, and your rectus abdominus. Your obliques work together to make you twist and side bend. And your rectus, the 6-pack, flexes or rounds your spine.
But wait, there’s more!
On the back of your body, the quadratus lumborum connects from the back of the pelvis to to the ribs and extends (arches) your spine and side bends. The spinal extensors… well, they extend your spine, it’s right there in the name.
So, put all these muscles together, and they express the full range of motion of the spine: flexion (rounding), side bending, twisting, and extension (arching). They also RESIST all of those same ranges of motion!
Great. I said a lot of boring anatomy stuff. What does it all mean?
If you’re moving your body in any sort of athletic way, whether it’s circus, dance, rock climbing, or general fitnessing, you will be the safest and the strongest when each individual body part or joint can move in its fullest range of motion. That means being able to isolate and control specific movements without letting anything else move. Can you lift your arms over your head without lifting your ribs up? That takes core strength. Can you lift and lower your leg without your back arching or rounding? Also core strength.
When you’re able to do something like lift your arm ups over your head without your ribs lifting up, it means that the muscles that work at your shoulder will be able to work more effectively and therefore get stronger. So if you want to do something like, I don’t know, get better at lifting up your own body over and over, you’re going to need to strengthen your lats and that’s going to start with making sure that your core is strong.
Remember, way back when, I said the core does two things: it stabilizes your spine, and moves your spine. That means that a strong core has a healthy balance of stability and mobility. So, in order to develop a strong core, you should be training it to both resist movement and also move in a controlled way. So, probably not 1 million crunches, because that’s just training spinal flexion over and over. And while a 5 minute plank is impressive, it’s not that functional.
Instead, we should be choosing exercises that have similar elements to the skills we want to develop!
Are you trying to develop pulling strength? Then choose an exercise that stabilizes the upper body while the arms are moving.
Do you want amazing hip extension? Then work on something that keeps your pelvis still while your leg lifts.
Want an exercise that does both of these things?
Try a bird-dog!
This is a favorite exercise in both fitness and physical therapy, but it’s often done without a lot of intention. Let’s see if we can fix that.
Get on your hands and knees. Push your hands into the ground and lift your belly button towards your spine. Keeping your spine still, reach one arm and the opposite leg out as far as you can. You can imagine that the farther your arm and leg reach, the tighter you have to get in your core.
Did it look like this?
Try putting a yoga block or a book on your back. Do it again, but don’t let the block move.
That’s core strength.
There are a lot of different ways to train your core, but how do you know if what you’re doing is helping you work towards your goals?
Knowing what exercises to do and where to draw your attention is a great place to start!
Curious to know what those exercises might include?
Sign up for the Level Up Your Core Challenge: 3 days of exercises that you can do at home to improve your posture, aerial skills, AND pull-ups.
It’s FREE and only takes a few minutes a day. You have nothing to lose and a whole lotta strength + knowledge to gain? Sign up now to get started!
Ready to level up your core?
Click here to sign up for my mailing list and join the challenge!