The Core is More Than Just “Abs”
The core is not just your abdominal muscles it is your entire torso, including internal organs. The extremities (arms, legs, head, etc.) rely on the core for stabilization and force production. This is our bodies’ foundation for movement and if it does not function properly, we’ll most likely experience extremity and spinal pain, as well as an increased chance of injury. Therefore, without the core we would not be able to function and if the core is weak we cannot function optimally.
The Bodies’ Action Center
Think of your core as the bodies’ action center, an incredibly complex system that is responsible for several vital functions that contribute to your health. I would like to look at many of the key functions of the core. This is so that we may appreciate the importance of this area of the body and why there is so much emphasis put on it, or why there should be.
Primary Core Functions
Central Nervous System Protection
One of the main functions the core serves, is protecting your central nervous system. It provides a protective shield for your spinal cord and internal organs. The bony spinal column, a part of the core, houses the spinal cord (part of your nervous system). The rib cage and powerful outer abdominal muscles act as a shield to protect your internal organs. This shield function is one reason Nature has developed our rectus abdominis muscle in short muscular blocks. Giving our stomach what many refer to as the six-pack.
Internal Organ Support
Another major function of the core, is the support of your internal organs. All of our internal organs are housed in the core, with the exception of the vital organs in the head. When the body moves and is engaged in exercising correctly, the internal organs are mobilized. This natural mobilization helps keep your organs from clinging to each other, improves fluid flow through the organs and is very beneficial to maintaining normal bowel habits. If key core muscles stop functioning correctly, support of internal organs will be compromised and their ability to function will be diminished.
Circulatory System Support
When the body moves correctly during exercise (movement), pressure changes occur in the core that assist the heart and extremity muscles to circulate blood and lymphatic fluid1 throughout the body. If the core stops functioning optimally, the heart will have to not only work harder, but the fluids moving through the core will become relatively stagnant. If these fluids cannot effectively move through your organs, due to diminished core function. Then the chances of fungal and parasite infections, constipation and disease increases, while your energy levels continually and progressively decrease.
Two Functional Units, That Always Work in Unison
To better appreciate the importance of the core, let’s take a deeper dive into how the core works. Based on the purpose of simplicity, the core can be divided into two functional units – the Inner and Outer Units. it will be helpful to divide this very complex system into two separate units to better our understanding. I’m going to focus mainly on the Inner unit since it provides the crucial foundation upon which the outer units work. Although, it’s important to keep in mind that these Inner and Outer units always work together.
Inner Unit – The Four Major Muscle Groups
The inner unit, consists of four major muscle groups, and a couple of secondary core muscles, that work in unison. These are the cores deep muscles, the first of which is the Multifidus that runs along the spine. Then we have the muscles of the pelvic floor or diaphragm,2 which is composed of muscle fibers of the levator ani, the coccygeus muscle, and associated connective tissue which span the area underneath the pelvis. The third major inner muscle group is the deepest abdominal muscle, the Transverse Abdominis (TVA). The diaphragm is the final major muscle group of the inner unit and it is our large breathing muscle. Two other, secondary core muscles, the internal oblique and large latissimus dorsi, are also contributors to inner unit function.
A Stack of Oranges?
I’d like you to consider for a moment that our spine, by itself, is not like a bar that is meant to bear load. It is much more similar, although it may be a small exaggeration but only a small one, to stacking oranges on top of one another. Yes, you read that right a stack of oranges, but how could stabilize this stack of oranges enough so that they would not fall over or crumble? It would need some type of bracing or support, a lot of support. If we look at the spine the inner unit of our core provides this support.
Inner Unit, Provides Support & Stability
The primary job of the inner unit muscles, regarding movement, is to stiffen the spine, rib cage and pelvic girdle so that the head, arms, and legs have a stable foundation on which to work. Stabilization begins in the core during functional movements and then works its way outward into the periphery. If these inner core muscles stop functioning properly, then the core or extremities cannot be effectively stabilized and the chance of injury, particularly in the lower back, will be increased significantly. The action of the Transverse abdominis (TVA) on the lower back and pelvis is essential to improving, or maintaining, stability for the spine and lower extremities,3,4 along with Fascia (connective tissue) but that’s a whole other post. When the TVA contracts, in efforts to stabilize, there is a large sheet of connective tissue (thoracolumbar fascia) that attaches to the bony ridges of the lumbar spine are pulled upon from both sides, resulting in increased stability on both sides of the spine at once.
The Outer Unit Provides the Mover Muscles
The outer unit, is comprised of those muscles that are best designed to move the body. These muscles are generally larger than those in the inner unit. They often cross multiple joints and are easily seen on the surface of the body. These include many muscles such as the Obliquus externus, Obliquus internus, Erector spinae (back), Latissimus dorsi (lats), Gluteus muscles (butt), the Quadratus lumborum (quads), adductors and hamstrings. You could think of these outer unit muscles as an engine of a car, and the inner unit muscles as the suspension system and the nuts and bolts that hold everything together. It’s not going to matter how strong the engine is if the frame (foundation) breaks and the wheels fall off!
Fact of the week
Low back pain (LBP) is a significant problem that affects approximately 50% of the population.5
A majority of individuals with recurrent episodes of LBP do not have an identifiable structural diagnosis. Though many individuals see benefit from spine stabilization exercises.6 This could be primarily, due to the fact, that stabilization exercises work through activation of the Transverse Abdominis. Which may provide more support for the spine, decreasing the amount of stress placed upon the spine.