Activate your core!
We hear this all the time. We are told, “you need to strengthen your core”, “make sure you are engaging your core”, “if your core was stronger, your pain would improve, your posture would be better, your back would not keeping ‘going out’.”
But what does it actually mean to activate your core? Well, it is not what you might think.
The first thing to understand is…What is your core? It sounds pretty basic but most people really don’t know. Our “core” is simply the muscles that wrap around the torso and connect the pelvis (and lower body) to the rib cage (and upper body) to stabilize the spine and support our organs. The core is essential to every movement we do every single day. Our core holds us up against gravity. It helps maintain upright posture throughout the day and provides support when we strain or are challenged including movements with your arms or legs by lifting, jumping, bending, running, carrying or simply coughing, singing or even throwing up.
The main muscle of your core in the internal most abdominal muscle called the Transverse Abdominis. It is what we like to call our God-given girdle or our built-in corset muscle. This muscle begins along the sides of the spine in the back, wraps around the torso and connects to the rib cage, sternum, pelvis and pubic bone. It also connects to the connective tissue that runs directly down the center of the abdominals. The continuous action of this muscle to elongate and to become smaller around the waist as it stabilizes the body and supplies true core strength.
The core activates when 2 conditions are met:
- The pelvis and rib cage need to be aligned with good posture (not collapsed, bulged or in a crunch position)
- The transverse activates when we exhale and draw our navel toward the spine (not when we hold our breath or tense the tummy).
Now the next question that inevitably comes up…“So I just stand tall and suck my tummy in all day??” Not exactly.
Standing tall will certainly help maintain good posture, but the reality is that if we have a weak core then we most likely do not have the functional strength to stand tall. We will gradually gain it by working on posture but just like all muscle strength, it takes time and consistency.
“Sucking it in” all day is not a good goal as it is not actually how we were designed to function. First, the transverse abdominis engages/activates on the exhale of the breath not the inhale. Sucking in is an inhale that flares the ribs but does not really effectively activate the core. Second, postural muscles have the capacity to be “turned on” all day long to hold us up against gravity but they do not need to be tight and tense all day to do so.
This would be overkill and exhausting. Think about the difference between the engine of a car humming along and the engine of a car revving the entire time. Revving the engine is an unnecessary and inefficient use of gas and energy that should be reserved for accelerating on the freeway, but not for driving all day. The same is true for how your core was designed to function. The transverse abdominis (the largest core muscle) actually has 4 common positions of activation.
Here is the best way to activate your core & what you should really be avoiding:
1. BULGING/BRACING CORE
This is what we want to avoid at ALL times. A bracing core is when we hold our breath, tense our tummy, and bulge to try to stabilize our body when challenged. This is a compensation strategy to use intra-abdominal air pressure in the absence of true core strength. We experience this when we heave ourselves off the floor or out of a deep couch cushion. We also use this when we grunt and strain to lift up a toddler or carry a 50lb bag of dog food into the house.
Bracing or bulging the core actually pushes out on your abdominal wall multiple times a day, or even all day long in some cases. It sends the opposite feedback to the transverse abdominis and directly causes conditions like diastasis recti, abdominal hernias, pelvic floor prolapse, pelvic instability, flared rib cage, and many other serious issues. Our goal at The Tummy Team is to eliminate this strategy and replace it with effective and efficient activation of your transverse abdominis.
2. RELAXED CORE
A relaxed core is when the transverse abdominis is inactive and the belly is allowed to sag down and out. This is limited to when we are lying down, resting or reclined with full back support of a chair. Every muscle in our body needs to relax at some point. However, if we are sitting, standing, walking, or moving in any way, then our core muscles are required to support our posture and connect our upper and lower body. Resting or relaxed core muscles should be supported by a chair, bed, etc. or the rest of your body will begin to compensate for this lack of support.
Think of this, if our legs completely relax when we are standing you likely will collapse. When our core completely relaxes when we are upright, all of the organs drop down and rest forward. When we are disconnected from the muscles of the core from chronic disuse, poor posture, pregnancy, or chronic collapsed parenting or work postures then it is hard to not live in this relaxed state. Systematically retraining these muscles is what The Tummy Team specializes in.
3. ACTIVE CORE
An Active Core is quiet, steady and balanced with the focus of the force moving upward like a cable pulling you taller from the crown of your head. We often refer to this state as “Long, lean and lifted” or a “Lighter not Tighter” feeling. An active core is when the pelvis and rib cage align and the body is elongated but not tense. This is our ultimate goal for most of our day. We are not jellyfish. We need a solid central foundation to keep our internal organs protected and supported to stabilize our spine so we can move deliberately and pain-free. When we move throughout the day the core muscles are essential to keeping us strong and upright against gravity and to connect our pelvis and rib cage so our arms and legs are free to move.
4. ENGAGED CORE
An engaged core is when the pelvis and rib cage align and we exhale and draw the belly button toward the spine while we are elongating. This is our goal for when our body is challenged by lifting, straining, carrying, jumping etc. We often coach clients to exhale and visualize a zipper zipping up the core from the pubic bone to the sternum like you are zipping up your skinny jeans. We are most effective when we exhale, elongate and engage to help fully activate the transverse abdominis when we lift, push, carry, pull, strain, and even sing, yell, vomit or have a bowel movement
It is not valuable to live with an engaged core all day long. Engaging and holding the muscles tight beyond what is needed for the activity we are doing actually causes the entire body to tense for no apparent reason. The intensity and duration of the exhale, elongate and engage strategy is directly correlated with the intensity and duration demanded from the activity required. For instance, the amount of core strength we need to lift a 50lb bag of dog food is different than the amount of core strength we need to carry a baby from the car seat to the crib. Muscles have an active state and an engaged state and it is important to know the difference.
Where do you see yourself in these descriptions?
The first step to any rehabilitation process is becoming aware of what is really going on in our body. Understanding how the core is designed to work and assessing what our own body is doing gives us a starting point. Success comes when we develop the strength and strategies to live in a strong and connected core. This is what we do at The Tummy Team.
The Tummy Team is a PT clinic that specializes in functional core rehab. We essentially help people reconnect to the underused muscles of the core in practical and meaningful ways so that there is all day, everyday strength for real life stuff. Real life demands include carrying a baby all day, cleaning the house, carpooling the kids to various sporting events, working 40+ hours in front of a computer and doing some basic activities like hiking, mowing the grass and camping with family. The core is very important for all of these real-life demands. We specialize in systematically rebuilding your core while we address the ineffective ways your body has been compensating for a weak core.
The differences described above are subtle but significant.
The Tummy Team has helped thousands of clients locally in the Portland OR area and internationally with their comprehensive online core rehab programs. The core is the foundation to all your movement all day long. If you are struggling to really connect to your core, let us help you.
Want to learn more? Sign up for our 6 Day FREE Essentials email series that walks you step by step through FREE resources giving you a daily goal with new strategies to meet your goals. We anticipate this series will heighten your awareness of what real-life core strength truly is and help you understand how and systematically rebuild this.