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How to get a good core

    In this photo, core stability is required to do this pose. Can you tell if I have good core, though? Here is a little quiz to see if you know what good core is.

    True or false:

    1. I have strong abs, and a flat tummy, so I have good core.
    2. Doing crunches will strengthen my core.
    3. I have good core, it's just the back pain that's the problem.

    You can't actually tell if I have good core from looking at that photo. Just because core stability is required to do this pose, doesn't necessarily mean I have good core. I could be over-using the the global stabilizers (like upper obliques) or power muscles (like the lats) to compensate. Or holding my breath. Or gripping my way through it.


    So, back to the quiz. All the answers are... false. Before we look at each one, it is important to note that as it relates to core stability, muscle functioning can be divided into 3 categories: inner core muscles, outer core (or global stabilizers) and power muscles. The aim is to have each category of muscles doing that which they are supposed to do.

    Strong abs = core?

    Strong abs ("six pack" muscles) do not necessarily mean good core. Abs are power muscles, as are lats, hamstrings, quads, calves, glutes, and pecs. These contribute to core stability, but are often over-used to compensate for weak inner core muscles. The inner core muscles consist of the pelvic floor, transversus abdominus and multifidus. If you don't know what or where these are, suffice to say they are all deep within the body and surround and support the spine. They're so deep that to get a pure contraction to contribute to "core", they are likely "evoked" by other means.

    What about doing crunches?

    Crunches will strengthen ab muscles but alone do not contribute to core stability.

    Back pain

    If you have back pain, this means you don't have core stability. You can't have both at the same time. Back pain indicates dysfunction in the body, and as mentioned above, perhaps the global stabilizers or power muscles are being over utilized.

    So how do we gain core stability?

    Try this. Come on to your hands and knees (Fig. 1). Without bracing or "getting ready", simply lift the knees off the floor one inch (Fig. 2). You should feel a response, as the load has increased. So it's not an active engagement of the abs, it's a response your body makes to the movement. See the difference? You don't have to "engage the core" ... it will automatically happen if you have the integrity within your structure to do the movement in the first place. So notice: Do you flatten your back, do you draw your navel to your spine, do you hold your breath, or "push through" with force or angst? For the next 2 weeks, back off so that you are moving with precision, and with an easy breath.
    Fig. 1 Hands and knees
    Earlier I mentioned holding the breath as one of the compensations we do when we don't have good core stability. The diaphragm (the primary breathing muscle) and transversus abdominus are related to core stability. (Transversus abdominus are located under the obliques and are the deepest of the ab muscles.) Note that if the breath is held, the diaphragm is held. If the diaphragm is held, the transversus abdominus is not going to function optimally, and the result will be a "bracing". That isn't good core.
    After you feel comfortable with the knee lift exercise, you can progress by starting on hands and knees, and slowly extending one leg back and place the foot on the floor (Fig. 3 & 4), BUT only move as far as you can maintain that response from the belly. If you lose that, you've gone too far. Repeat with the other leg.  Then, try extending one leg and adding the second leg into full plank.
    Fig. 3 Legs extending

    Remember to watch your breath - don't hold it! By practicing in this way, the overall feeling should move to lightness and ease. Or effortless effort.

    Contrast that to gripping, bracing and holding the breath. THAT is good core.  If this way of thinking resonates with you, please check out  my group classes.

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