Hardcore Series Part I: sore core + ignored core = poor core

Shut the front door. Let the schooling begin, folks.

Oh the sweet, misunderstood core. It must be one of the most used (make that abused) word in the fitness world. We all know that it is important to have a strong core. We all know it's good to exercise the core. But what exactly is the core? How familiar are you with yours?

These are two (obnoxious) statements that I hear very frequently: "I have a high pain tolerance" and "I have a strong core". Usually the people who throw out such bold claims actually demonstrate quite the opposite. Spoiler alert: doing sit-ups does not equal strong core. No matter the injury or dysfunction you may be grappling with, I will guarantee it will (almost) always relate to your core and the way in which you stabilize your body.

I must admit that I was one of those people who thought they had a "strong core". Like many, I thought that because I was active, played sports and worked out that naturally I was strong. However, I was completely humbled in a university seminar where I arrogantly volunteered to allow our professor to use ultrasound to visualize (part of) my core as I attempted to activate it. I squeezed my midsection so hard I thought my eyes were going to pop out. And what happened, you ask? Well friends, it was pathetic. I was indeed doing it all wrong. But why??

To put it simply - I didn't truly understand the real function and purpose of the core and thought of the area as being synonymous with my abdominals. I thought that simply tightening my abs was all it took to engage my core. Anyone else in this boat? Is anyone else in the dark like I was (don't be shy -- I was a physiololgy/kinesiology student at the time and obviously spending too much time at the Peel Pub in Montreal and not enough time in the Anatomy lab!). 

For those that need a little education on the matter at hand, I will keep this lesson short and sweet. There is plenty of places you can learn in great detail about your core, but here are the basics: 

  • Much like discovering that the world is round and not flat was a game-changer, so is understanding that the core is 3-dimensional and wraps around your mid-section like a custom-fit corset
  • The core-proper incorporates your deepest abdominals (Transversus Abdominus), your deepest back muscles (Multifidus), your pelvic floor and your diaphragm 
  • It takes activation of these 4 muscle groups in concert to achieve proper core activation and stabilization of your spine
  • The main functional purpose of your core is to offload the joints of your spine and pelvis so that as you skip and jump and glide through life, you are not putting undue stress on the more fragile elements of your skeleton. It also gives your body a stable base to allow your limbs to move efficiently and effectively
  • Your body is a very sophisticated system and has been programmed to engage your core in anticipation of movement. However, with a weak/dysfuntional/injured core, this mechanism is disabled and you are more vulnerable to injury

Here she is, folks: 

Image adapted from www.burrelleducation.com

In my humble opinion, treating any injury - no matter the area or severity, proper engagement of the core is the first step. It is the foundation to any movement and we all know how important a stable foundation is (especially if you live in an old, crooked Toronto home like I do ;). I cannot begin to explain how enlightening it can be to finally understand how to properly stabilize yourself and how much more profound your strengthening will be. 

Let this information percolate in your brain and stay tuned for the next part of this series as I breakdown each area of the core and give some tips on how to properly awaken each of these muscle groups. In the meantime, let me give you a little piece of homework. Take a long, deep breath. While doing so, look at the diagram above and picture these muscles in your own body. Try to connect with the idea of them encapsulating your mid-section from every direction (recall: the earth is not flat -- nor is the core!). Just that subtle awareness should have made you sit/stand a little taller and lifted you up off your tired skeleton. Keep this image in your mind's eye and come back to that awareness throughout your day while you wait with baited breath for the next instalment in the Hardcore Series......