Is there more to core strength? Yes!
When people think of their core, many times they only think about six-pack abs and crunches. While your abdominal muscles are a major muscle group of the core, they are far from the only thing that matters. Endless crunches might give you a certain muscle definition, but they won’t get you a strong, functional core on their own – which should be the main goal of a well-rounded core strengthening program. In this article, we cover the muscles that make up the core, their important roles, and how you can strengthen your core in a way that optimizes muscle strength and function!
What muscles make up the core?
The core is sometimes described as a canister or cylinder in which the abdominal muscles are the front, the spinal muscles and gluteal muscles make up the back, the pelvic floor at the bottom, and the diaphragm creates the top. These muscles work together, balancing each other, and providing stability to the pelvis and spine.
The Front of the Core: Abdominal Muscles
The main abdominal muscles include the:
• Rectus Abdominus: a more superficial abdominal muscle in the middle of the abdomen that helps to flex the trunk forward and is what is sometimes referred to as the “6-pack.” This is the muscle that is predominantly working during exercises like crunches.
• External and Internal Obliques: the external and internal oblique muscles run along the front and lateral side of the abdomen, with the internal oblique muscles residing under the superficial external oblique muscles. These muscles each have their own specific action, but in general, they help with trunk flexion along with bending to the side and trunk rotation.
• Transverse Abdominous (TA): the deepest abdominal muscle that runs horizontally across the abdomen. The TA plays a large role in holding the internal organs in place and stabilizing the pelvis and spine. This muscle is sometimes likened to a corset as it acts in a similar fashion.
The Back of the Core: Muscles Surrounding the Spine and the Gluteals
• Lumbar Multifidus: the multifidus is a muscle that spans the entire spine, but it is most prominent in the low back which is referred to specifically as the lumbar multifidus. This muscle sits on the spine itself and plays a large role in the stabilization of the spine during movement while working together with other muscles of the core like the TA and pelvic floor muscles. When this muscle is weak, it can lead to dysfunctional movement patterns due to instability that could result in low back pain.
• Erector Spinae: this group of muscles runs vertically along the spine and stabilizes the spine while also helping to keep the trunk upright against the force of gravity.
• Quadratus Lumborum: this is the deepest muscle of the low back that works along with the multifidus and erector spinae to stabilize the spine and counter forces from the abdominals in the front of the body.
• Gluteal Muscles: in general, this muscle group works to provide pelvic stability and control movement of the pelvis and hips along with the trunk.
The Bottom of the Core: Pelvic Floor
The pelvic floor muscles are essentially the base of the core and act together with the other muscle groups to stabilize and support the pelvis and spine. This muscle group also supports the bladder and reproductive organs – they are incredibly important and not always thought of during core training. It’s important for your pelvic floor muscles to work in harmony with the other core muscles so that during exercise, or anytime intrabdominal pressure increases, the pelvic floor remains lifted and does not collapse due to weakness. On the contrary, pelvic floor muscles should be a healthy balance of strong and flexible, as muscles that are too tense or tight can result in dysfunction and discomfort as well. This is true for men and women alike!
The Top of the Core: Diaphragm
The diaphragm is a muscle that sits below the lungs, separating the chest from the abdomen. This dome-shaped muscle plays an important role in breathing along with core stability. When it contracts, it flattens downward driving inspiration – taking a breath in. At the same time, the muscles of the pelvic floor and abdominals are in a more relaxed state, allowing room for air to enter the body and movement of the diaphragm. When the diaphragm relaxes, it moves upward and resumes its dome shape resulting in expiration – along with contraction, or lifting, of the pelvic floor muscles and contraction of the abdominal muscles. Performing diaphragmatic breathing, also known as deep breathing or belly breathing, engages the core muscles and with practice helps facilitate effective coordination of these muscles to work together in harmony for both more efficient breathing and core stabilization.
Why is core strength so important?
Exercising the core goes far beyond aesthetics, although this can be a common motivator – which is fine as long as you are also training the core for function! As mentioned above, the core muscles play a large role in stabilizing the pelvic and spine, but what does that really mean? Having a stable spine and pelvis promotes proper alignment of body structures and makes it easier for optimal movement to occur. A strong core also decreases the risk of injury and can minimize the severity of injury in the event that something does happen. There are studies to even suggest that increased core stability assists with faster recovery from injuries and surgery.
A strong core is also vital for adequate balance and posture. Since your core is essentially the foundation of your body, it is needed in order to control movement and restore balance when you are feeling unsteady. From lifting your newborn to putting on a backpack, everyday movements require the activation of your core. Even during a leisurely walk, the various muscle groups of your core are working to keep you upright, help you breathe efficiently, and coordinate the necessary movements of your legs and arms – like taking a step forward and letting your arms swing at your sides.
The best ways to perform functional core strengthening exercises
Training your core with awareness and intention will yield the best results. Additionally, ensuring that you train every aspect of your core is imperative for a fully functional core and to prevent muscle imbalances. As mentioned above, deep diaphragmatic breathing is a great way to engage your pelvic floor muscles to train for both weakness and appropriate timing of contraction and relaxation. Core stabilization goes beyond focusing on strength gains and must incorporate proper motor control and muscle coordination to be effective – which takes patience and practice.
Check out some of our physical therapists’ favorite exercises to improve your functional core strength in this YouTube video.
In addition to core stabilization exercises, introducing daily walking has been shown to effectively reduce low back pain and improve isometric core muscle endurance during movement. So don’t forget to add movement into your day-to-day routines as well!
Looking to step up your core strengthening exercises and don’t know exactly where to begin? Download the OneStep app today to meet your licensed physical therapist who will curate a customized core strengthening and stabilization exercise program made just for you and prompt you to take daily walks!
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