Contrary to popular belief, the core is more than the ‘6 pack’ muscles you see advertised with the headline, ‘30 min workout to get a strong core and shredded abs’. In fact, those 6 pack muscles are one of 6 main muscle groups that work together to maintain a stable trunk, hold in your pelvic floor organs, and hold your spine upright, functions which are more of a priority than shredded abs in my opinion. Learning how to properly engage, strengthen and support your core is fundamental to longevity in training and injury prevention.
Let’s delve into what muscle groups make up your ‘core’ and what role each of them plays:
Pelvic Floor Muscles
These are located between the tailbone and the pubic bone.
They are responsible for supporting the bowel and bladder, and the uterus and vagina in females.
Transverse Abdominis (TA)
This is the deepest layer of abdominal muscle, and it sits horizontally around the abdomen (like a corset).
This muscle is activated in everyday movements. It helps maintain normal abdominal tension and helps increase intra-abdominal pressure when needed. This is the muscle group you’ll subconsciously tense if someone were to (try) to punch you in the stomach.
This muscle spans the whole length of the vertebral column.
It works alongside the transverse abdominis to co-contract and create stability to support the spine.
This is a thin skeletal muscle that sits at the base of the chest.
Its job is to contract and flatten when you inhale, and plays a role in increasing abdominal pressure.
These make up the top layer of the abdominals, aka the 6-pack muscles.
Besides being show muscles, they play an important role in core stability, and flexion of the trunk.
These muscles run along the side of the core.
They’re responsible for rotational movements, bending from side to side and protecting the spine.
You’ll hear ‘brace your core’ often in the context of the gym and strength training, but physical training aside, having a strong and functional pelvic floor and core is key in supporting bodily functions such as continence and coughing. Strong abdominal muscles have also been shown to aid women in birth. Trunk stability also works to protect the spine in everyday movements like bending, sitting, standing and picking up items (or children).
In the context of the gym and strength training, a strong brace and correct activation of the pelvic floor and core muscles ensures that the spine is protected and allows the muscles that need to be working to do their job. What this means is that if we have trunk stability, we can allow for an efficient transfer of power from the working muscles to lift the load. In addition to this, incorporating diaphragmatic breathing adds more support to the trunk by increasing intra-abdominal pressure. This is the process of inhaling, pushing air to our lungs, down the diaphragm, which contracts and creates pressure over the abdominal cavity. Think of a full, closed can of soft drink, as opposed to an open can which has no internal pressure.
So how do you properly train your pelvic floor and core?
While crunches and sit-ups may feel like you’re working your core, they don’t necessarily train the deep core muscles, understanding how to correctly activate the layers of the core, from the pelvic floor, through to the superficial ‘6 pack’ muscles is the first step, followed by correct breathing to create intra-abdominal pressure and a stronger brace while strength training.
Pelvic Floor Activation
Lay down with your legs up on a wall, with 90 degrees at your hips and 90 degrees at your knees. Alternatively you can lay down flat with your feet on the floor, knees bent.
Focus on drawing your pelvic floor up, (this will feel like resisting the urge to go to the toilet). Try not to squeeze your glutes, legs, or stomach during this exercise, there shouldn’t be any visible tension.
Draw your pelvic floor up, and hold for 3 secs, working up to 5-10 secs per hold, repeating 5-10 times. Remember to fully release between each hold.
TA & Abdominal Activation
Relax your pelvic floor, and we’ll focus on finding the TA (transverse abdominis). One way to do this is to palpate 1cm inwards of your hip bones, and try and firm that area (think of bracing your stomach, as though you’ll be bracing for a punch in the stomach).
Work on bracing that TA and holding it for 3 secs, up to 10 times.
You may automatically brace your pelvic floor as well during this drill, but if not, you can now focus on piecing drill 1 and drill 2 together.
Place one hand on your chest, and one hand on your belly.
Focus on deeply breathing into your belly, allowing your belly to rise first, and chest second.
Practice this breathing technique for 5-10 breaths, exhaling fully between breaths.
You can incorporate these drills into your warm up, and then work on practicing steps 1-3 during your strength training. When in doubt, check in with your coach.
Happy training, see you in the gym.