The core is a complex series of muscles, extending far beyond our abdominal muscles. They include pretty much every muscle group besides the muscles of the head, neck, arms and legs. It is the usage of these muscles that allow mobility in the upper and lower portions of our bodies. Indeed, they are the foundation for all our movements, from getting out of bed to walking, running, climbing and lifting.
The core muscles also act to counteract forces working against us. They stabilise the spine, ribcage and pelvis against the stresses of movements and other external forces such as gravity. This stability prevents us from losing our balance and keeling over. It is, therefore important that the muscles incorporated in the core work together in symmetry. This is essential in order to transfer force evenly through the body and prevent us from having undesired back, hip, knee and neck pain.
Core muscles have many other important bodily functions without which we would have difficulty in our everyday lives. These include providing internal pressure to assist women in childbirth; as well as the expulsion of unwanted waste substances such as vomit, faeces and carbon dioxide.
In short, the core is essentially the body’s ‘powerhouse’. A central hub that provides strength and support to the entire body whenever movement is generated. Although this muscle group is of obvious importance to our ability to function, sadly it is often neglected in training and indeed everyday life. To improve everyday function and avoid ailments, it is important that all of the core muscles are included in regular workouts.
Anatomy – Meet your Core Muscles
For simplicity, we shall divide the core muscles into two camps. Firstly, the Anterior Core Muscles – The front and side core muscles. These drive core movement and support the spine by maintaining the pressure inside the abdomen and the chest. Secondly, we have the Posterior Core Muscles. These are the core muscles of your back and glutes. That provides strength and support and stability to the spine and drive hip movement.
Anterior Core Muscles
They are comprised of:
- Rectus Abdominis – ‘6 pack muscles’ mainly involved in flexion movements.
- Transverse Abdominis – Deep muscles involved in resisting external forces and so stabilising the body.
- External and Internal Obliques – Side muscles that are involved in rotational movements and stabilise against lateral resistance.
- Pelvic Floor muscles – Provide support for the organs inside your abdomen, important in core strength and stability.
- Hip Flexor Muscles– Found near hips obviously. These control flexion movements such as bending the hips or raising our legs. It is the Hip flexor muscles that are often found to be underused in cases of chronic lower back pain.
- Diaphragm – The diaphragm is the main muscle of respiration and functions in breathing. It connects to many of your body’s stabilisers. The diaphragm as part of the intrinsic core (See note below) is very important in intra-abdominal pressure. It works closely with the deep abdominals, the pelvic floor, and the multifidus muscles in the lower back.
NB: Think of the intrinsic core muscles as forming the sides of a pressurised container: with the pelvic floor is the bottom; the deep abdominal and back muscles form the sides; the diaphragm is the lid on top. These muscles must all play their part otherwise the container loses pressure, weakening the stable base we require to move effectively. The result is a decrease in overall strength due to the lack of support from your core. This can cause all kinds of compensation patterns, none of which is beneficial.
Posterior Core Muscles
They are comprised of the
- Erector Spinae – Muscles that provide support to the spine when we bend forward and extend backwards, as well as resist lateral (sideways movement).
- Multifidus and Quadratus Lumborum – Spinal muscles, both stabilisers.
- Gluteal muscles – Gluteus Maximus, Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimus. Very important in hip movements (such as rotation, abduction, adduction) and stabilisation.
- Diaphragm – (See Above).
Problems with Modern Lifestyles and Poor Posture
Modern lifestyles are growing increasingly sedentary. This is in part due to the growing number of occupations requiring workers to be sitting at desks, operating computers or on phones. This continuing trend of being hunched over desks for long periods has led the increase of poor posture; weaker core strength and muscular imbalance.
Muscular imbalance means that there is not a good balance between muscles that are too tight or loose. This can result in some muscles that are too weak and others that are much stronger. All of the above can result in a variety of postural problems, for example, chronic backache and neck ache.
Other problems can occur from inefficient movement when the wrong muscles are utilised/overused such as in poor lifting. Over time this may lead to muscular imbalance and/or injury and will become much worse if not addressed.
Signs of Poor Core Strength and Stability
Common symptoms associated with a lack of core strength:
- Poor posture: This is one of the first symptoms of a weak or injured core. Slumped shoulders or an inability to stand or sit up straight. A weak core causes bad posture.
- Back pain: Back pain this can come via injury or from a lack of strength in the opposing abdominal muscles due to underuse. If the muscles aren’t providing as much support as they should, the back overworks itself when it comes to lifting, running and other exercises.
- Overall weakness: If you have problems lifting heavy amounts or jumping, your core may be at fault. Those midsection muscles fuel the strength of your limbs. Pain that comes from strenuous activity can often be traced back to the core.
- Fatigue: If you feel shortness of breath, or are unable to hold in your stomach without feeling strain or pain. If your fitness is generally good then there may be problems with core muscle strength.
- Reduced Sports Performance: Failure with technique (running or poor landing), slower times, less power.
- Weak stomach muscles
- Poor balance
- Increased injuries, aches and pains
Overtraining/Undertraining Core Muscles
Weak, tight, or unbalanced core muscles can undermine us in any of these areas. As such it must be stressed that a balance with core training is key. It is far too easy to devote all of core training towards developing those six-pack abs. This can be a recipe for disaster. Overtraining anterior abdominal muscles whilst neglecting the posterior chain and pelvic muscles can result in injuries and seriously impair ability.
A more realistic plan to see those six pack abs appear would be to concentrate on trimming down body fat with a proper and nutritious diet; as well as using appropriate aerobic exercise and combined with frequent balanced core exercise sessions. A balanced plan like this will engage all of the key core areas to build strong abdominal muscles.
Always include core training in your weekly workouts. Even if you don’t play any kind of sport or don’t focus on core work currently then certainly consider. A strong core will help maintain good posture as well as your ability to move and stabilise effectively in everyday life. Regular training will minimise the chance of injuries and enable you to undertake exercises safely and effectively. Core training will also provide you with the edge to produce great power in competition and practice whatever your training background.
Utilise this important set of muscles to keep a strong, tight and powerful core to keep you training and moving to maximum potential.