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Your Core is Not Just Your Six Pack

Sometimes, if a friend or colleague has back pain aggravated by orchestra chairs, he or she will often say, "I need to work on my abs and core.  They're weak."  I'm always fascinated by this because for years and years, I was told by the media that core=abs, which in not actually the truth (or even close to the whole truth.)  So what is THE CORE?

Images like this make folks believe that core is just abdominals!

Images like this make folks believe that core is just abdominals!

Let’s start by redefining core by thinking, "your core is your center," AKA. anything above the pelvis and below the heart.  If you’re an apple, your core is the center of the apple. That includes the front, the sides and the back, folks.  The human body doesn't have much bone between ribs and pelvis because

  1. We need to put our organs somewhere

  2. We need to have an elastic space that allows from pregnancy and birth.

  3. We are dynamic movers, and having less bone allows more spinal and hip movement.

    Instead of bony structures around our belly button, we have a sleeve of muscle and soft tissue, with a bony supporting structure in the middle.  In that sense, core includes back muscles, erector spinae, obliques, transverse, rectus abdominus, your respiratory diaphragm and pelvic floor, and even serratus anterior, depending on who you ask. Many different fitness professionals, PT’s, trainers and other movement teachers will define the core in different ways, and decide which muscles qualify as core differently.   There are sometimes talk of slings, inner unit of core and outer unit of core, and more, but the main concept is that your core is not just your 6 pack muscles.

Most publications favor the front of the body when discussing core or abs, like this first image here.

Most publications favor the front of the body when discussing core or abs, like this first image here.

Let’s step back a bit though- why does your core matter?  Well, mainstream media pushes that flat abs, or six pack abs, or a flat stomach is, a strong core = flat abs=six pack.  Unfortunately, that's not true.  Visible abs is an aesthetic phenomena and not a functional strength one- the rectus abdominus is the most superficial ab muscle, and it often gets the most attention, but it's job is just to flex the spine, or fold in half.  Working on that muscle with a furious passion won't necessarily make abs more visible OR erase back pain.  Visible muscle tone of any muscle doesn’t indicate relative strength, efficiency, or lack of pain.

In the yoga, pilates, and fitness space, many of the cues that we receive about our core are confusing at best, with language like draw your navel in and up, draw your belly in, scoop your belly, and more. These cues in particular can often make folks squeeze their belly 24/7, or misunderstand the intention of the core to begin with.

One of the images that is used more frequently is thinking of the core as beverage can. If you squeeze your abs in and up, you are denting the can on one side, and also moving the contents of the beverage up and down (up into your diaphragm and down into your pelvic floor.) A more advantageous approach is learning how to stabilize your core without scooping, squeezing, or “navel to spine.” Dr. Stuart McGill purposes that individuals need to learn to brace or stabilize (when appropriate, not 24/7) and that some of our previous language about how to cue the core is ineffective and inappropriate.

Let’s recap:

First of all, visible abs don't necessarily equate strength in the midsection and back.  Even amongst female and male competitive athletes, abdominal tone ranges widely depending on genetics and individuality.

Secondly, your core is more than your abs. Your “core strength” is affected by your movement habits, and if you sit in a chair all day long, your body adapts.  Core strength is not just one’s ability to do crunches or roll-ups, it’s also our ability to stabilize in positions like planks, under weight, in squats or overhead, and more. Core strength is your ability to move from your center in a supported and balanced way, which includes standing, sitting, walking, running, playing your instrument, singing...all of it. Also start to notice if you randomly squeeze your abs to look a certain way or to “engage” your core. Do you bring your belly in and up every time someone tells you to engage or stabilize? That may not be helping you in the way you think it is!

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