We’ve all been told time and time again that having a strong core is important. And many of us attend regular Pilates classes in the hope of building one.
But what is meant by “the core” and do we actually need a strong one?
To help answer these questions we’ve asked Helen O’Leary, Physiotherapist, Polestar Pilates instructor and Complete Pilates clinical Director, to introduce us to the anatomy of the core and address some of the myths surrounding this part of the body.
So, if you’re curious about the core, how it functions and whether we need to be exercising it then read on.
What counts as the core?
The core is generally thought of as a cylinder that works around your trunk and pelvis.
It is made up of:
- The Diaphragm – this is the muscle that is primarily responsible for helping us to breath. It attaches to your lower ribs and spine.
- The Transverse Abdominus – it sits under your six-pack and is the deepest muscle of your abdominals. It is also one of the first muscles to switch off when you’re in pain.
- The Obliques – these are the muscles on your waist.
- Multifidus – a deep muscle of the lower back.
- The Pelvic Floor – the deepest muscle cradled by your pelvis. It attaches to the spine, the pubic bones and to both the sit bones (the two bony points that you can feel in each butt cheek).
Pilates is not a core exercise!
You’ve probably heard that Joseph Pilates saw the core as the centre of movement and designed his method around this area.
However, according to Brent Anderson, CEO of Polestar Pilates, Pilates teachers “have to be very careful of claiming that Pilates is a core control exercise.”
Why? Because as Brent explains; “we know that people who participate in Pilates will have a stronger core (however you measure that), and will have decreased risk of falls and better coordination.” But there is little or no evidence that these benefits come from having a stronger core, he explains.
Instead, Anderson says that that creating a positive movement experience for people – through helping them achieve certain movements in the Pilates studio – has a more dramatic effect on physical ability than any core strengthening exercise.
A strong core will not help your back pain
Contrary to popular belief, having a strong core does not reduce back pain.
“There is no evidence” Anderson says, “that support [this]” – which explains why so many athletes with impressive six-packs suffer with back pain!
What can often help, however, is creating a more even distribution of force through the spine, pelvis and hips. This can be partially achieved through upper/mid-back mobilisation exercises.
Having said that, working on what is considered to be “the core” is still an important part the rehab process.
This is because back pain can prevent the deep stabilising muscles from switching of. Instead of just focusing on strength, however, this work should involve teaching them to activate and work alongside all the other muscles.
Sometimes it’s about activating and not strengthening
There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding core strength work – and often these come from well-meaning Pilates instructors.
This is especially true of what is said about the Transversus Abdominis (TVA), one of the most important parts of the “core” and the deepest of your abdominal muscles. It helps to stabilise the spine and pelvis.
Pilates teachers often talk about strengthening the TVA. But the truth is – you can’t actually strengthen it! Instead, by performing exercises that target it (like femur arcs and dead bugs) you teach it to activate. This means it switches on to stabilise the spine in different positions and it is this that protects the spine from injury.
Finding the right alignment is all it takes
The core musculature works best when your spine is in its natural alignment. This is when the three curves of the spine are visible.
This means that finding the right neutral alignment of the spine – a major focus in Pilates classes – is sometimes the most important part of the process of getting these muscles functioning properly.
It also means that you can benefit your core without any conscious muscle activation at all!
The benefits of a well-functioning core
Having said all that, activating and strengthening the muscles of the core is a good thing – especially when they’re not working in the right way.
And that’s because there are numerous benefits of having a core that functions properly.
It supports you in everyday life
A functioning core stabilises your back when you bend forwards to tie your shoe laces or pick something up.
The same is true for when you twist sideways to reach something from the bag next to your feet, when you look up towards the sky, and when you turn to look across the road.
It keeps you upright
By working together, the core muscles also encourage good posture and more efficient movement. By stabilising the spine, they also keep you upright in sitting – something we all do too much of. Plus, they keep your spine erect when you are standing, walking and running.
Having the ability to connect to the core can help you stay tall. This is essential for good posture at any age, but it becomes increasingly important as you get older and your posture starts to deteriorate.
It is important for our balance
These core muscles also help you with your balance. And good balance is essential for everything from trying to perfect a single leg squat in the gym to walking in heels!
A strong core helps at the gym
From this you can see how well-functioning core muscles equates to better and safer gym workouts. And, for those of you currently rehabilitating an injury, it explains why core work (ideally through Pilates) will help your recovery.
Working in the gym and loading yourself up with weights when you squat or deadlift puts a lot of pressure on your spine. Any dysfunction of the core (i.e. one that doesn’t automatically activate before you move to protect your spine and pelvis) in people lifting heavy weights can lead to discomfort or even injury.
However, this can be avoided by connecting the upper and lower body together through the deep core musculature. This can then prevent an amount of unwanted rotation at the lower back and pelvis.
In this way, forces of the weights you are lifting are more equally distributed through your lower limbs. All of this helps to protect your spine and prevent injury occurring in your joints.
It can help you get that flat belly
An active core also has important visual benefits and this can be a big incentive for developing this area.
Ever wondered why no matter how well you eat or how hard you train you just can’t get those lower abs flat? This could be due to the fact that you are only superficially strong and your deep core isn’t functioning properly. Get these muscles to work, however, and you may end up with a slimmer waist and flatter abdominals.
At the same time, it is important to remember that as Brent Anderson says; “weak abdominals are not a pathology.”
And whilst having flat abs is nice, over-recruiting them can actually have a negative effect on digestion, posture and breathing.
So, if you do abdominal work regularly then remember to relax your abs, stretch them out and strengthen your back to create balance in your body.
So, do we need a strong core?
The take away: we need a core that works efficiently and effectively to protect our spine and pelvis.
And Pilates can help us with this. Not through endless crunches, but by teaching us to unconsciously activate these deep stabilisers and by helping us find a neutral spine alignment.
So, remember one thing the next time you are in a Pilates session or at the gym; connecting to your core muscles is not about “sucking in”, it is about activating the right parts through breath, alignment and imagery!