Your body's core consists of the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex, thoracic spine and cervical spine. The shoulder girdle also plays a big part in the functionality of the core.
The core is your body's center of gravity. Many athletes have sufficient extremity strength (limbs), but few athletes display sufficient core strength.
A strong and stable core will maximize your extremity strength and power. A core strengthening program involves using many muscles in a coordinated movement. Rather than isolating specific joints as in most weight lifting exercises, core stability exercises focus on working the deep muscles of the entire torso at once.
The core muscles are also very important in preventing low back pain. Stability ball exercises, bridges, planks, low back extensions, medicine ball exercises, etc. are great for strengthening core muscles.
The body's core is so much more than your "six pack" abs! A strong core will maximize your strength and speed. Since the core is your body's center of gravity and all movement begins with the core, it is essential to strengthen and stabilize it.
A strong core will allow you to handle heavier loads as your training progresses. You will also lessen your chances of injury. About 34 muscles support your core which includes the pelvic floor.
The major core muscles include:
transversus abdominis - the deepest of the abdominal muscles, it lies under the obliques and wraps around your spine for protection and stability. Think of the transversus abdominis as "your internal weight belt." It is recruited when you brace (like getting ready to take a punch to your gut) your torso during an exercise.
external oblique - these muscles are on the side and front of the abdomen and wrap around your waist.
internal oblique - these muscles lie under the external obliques and run in the opposite direction.
rectus abdominis - this is the "six pack" part of the abs that runs down the front of the abdomen.
erector spinae - this collection of muscles runs along your neck to your lower back.
These core muscles lie deep within the torso. They generally attach to the spine, pelvis and muscles that support the scapula. When these muscles contract, you stabilize the spine, pelvis and shoulders and create a solid base of support. You are then able to generate powerful movements of the extremities.
Training the muscles of the core also corrects postural imbalances that can lead to injuries. The biggest benefit of core training is to develop functional fitness, that is, fitness that is essential to both daily living and athletic activities. A core conditioning program will decrease the likelihood of back and neck pain, incontinence, ruptured disks, muscle and ligamentous strains, all while improving posture.
To understand the complexity of the core and how it relates to overall body function, the inner and outer units must be explained. These units work in harmony, allowing athletes to function at the highest level.
The Inner Unit
The inner unit provides joint stabilization for your spine. If the inner unit does not activate properly, your spine, pelvis and joint structures are placed in a position that will lead to injuries.
The inner unit consists of the transversus abdominis, multifidus, internal obliques, lumbar transversospinalis, pelvic floor and diaphragm. Although I will cover the transversus abdominis, multifidus and pelvic floor in detail, the other muscles in the inner unit are also at work.
When the transversus abdominis is working properly, it contracts before the extremities will move. When your spine is unstable, the central nervous system will not recruit the extremity muscles correctly. The extremity muscles assist with functional movement patterns.
For example, if you bend over to lift a heavy load, your transverse abdominis needs to activate in order to stabilize your spine. When it doesn't activate and stabilize, you are at high risk for a low back injury.
When you make a habit of not recruiting the transversus abdominis to stabilize your spine, the joints will begin early degeneration.
The multifidus lies deep to the spine crossing over three joint segments. It works to provide joint stabilization at each segmental level. The vertebrae need stability to work correctly and reduce degeneration of joint structures.
The pelvic floor covers the area under the pelvis. The pelvic floor is critical for the inner unit to work properly. Sometimes, operations for sports hernias cause damage because the inner unit muscles have been cut. Core exercises can rehabilitate, strengthen and tone these muscles.
The Outer Unit
The muscles of the outer unit are: rectus abdominis, external obliques, erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, adductor complex, quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteus maximus.
The transversospinalis group, erector spinae, quadratus lumborum and latissimus dorsi are critical lumbar spine muscles. The other muscles in the outer unit also play a role in core stabilization to dynamically produce force (concentric), stabilize force (isometric) and reduce force (eccentric) in all 3 planes of motion.
If the muscles of the inner unit and outer unit work in isolation, they can not stabilize your lumbo-pelvic-hip complex effectively. And, this will of course lead to injuries. Low back pain is a major problem for the American population. As many as 75%-80% of adults have experienced significant low back pain. Lack of core stability and strength is the major cause of low back pain.
Training guidelines for core stabilization are as follows:
Among other benefits, a core assessment by your trainer will identify your muscle imbalances and postural dysfunctions. It is important for you to correct muscle imbalances and postural dysfunctions before you begin an aggressive core stabilization training program.
The goal of the core training program is for you to develop optimal levels of functional strength and dynamic stabilization.
You can start at the highest level of core stabilization training that you can control. As with other areas of integrated training, a core training program should be:
1. progressive, systematic, sport-specific and challenging,
2. multi-planar (sagittal, frontal, transverse), multi-dimensional (stabilization, strength, power) and variable (sets, repetitions, intensity, etc.),
3. varied with contraction velocities (different speeds), and
4. varied with modes of training (airex pads, foam, floor, disc, etc.) and body positions.
Core training exercise progressions should follow these paths:
1. Slow to Fast
2. Known to Unknown
3. Stable to Controlled to Dynamic
4. Low Force to High Force
5. Correct Execution to Increased Intensity
Strengthen your core to give you an edge over the competition.
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Mark Dilworth, BA, PES
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