Functional movements cannot be performed correctly and safely without proper contraction of the core. The core muscles are designed to stabilise the spine and pelvis. In fact, in order to protect the spine, these muscles should switch on prior to performing any movement of the torso, or of the arms or legs. If the core muscles are not doing their job, other muscles will often come in to try and compensate and it’s these compensations that can develop into chronic pain.
Activating the Core
Step 1 – The following exercise may be performed on hands and knees (table top position), in a seated position, or in a lying face up position. Today, I will demonstrate lying face up with legs bent and feet flat on the floor. Firstly, consider the position of the pelvis, i.e. it should remain in a position that allows the natural arch in your lower back. You can tilt your hips back and forth to find the natural position for you. There should be a space maintained between your lower back and the floor.
Step 2 – Now relax your body, especially your thighs, buttocks, pelvic floor and abdominal muscles, whilst maintaining your posture, especially the natural curve of your lower back.
Step 3 – To demonstrate what we do not want when activating the core, place your hand on your abdomen at the level of your umbilical (navel). Then perform a crunch and notice how your abdomen rises due to the contraction of the Rectus Abdominis. This rise of the abdomen should not happen when the TA is contracted. In fact, the abdomen should lower rather than rise.
The best place to feel the TA is in the lower abdominal area. Place 2-3 fingers on each of your hip bones, i.e. the Anterior Superior Iliac Spine (ASIS). Then move your fingers inwards about 2 cm and downwards about 2 cm. To check you have the correct spot, cough and feel the contraction of your TA.
Now, to activate the TA correctly…
For women, (as you breathe out) contract your core by gently squeezing the inside of your vagina and lifting up into your pelvis. This will feel similar to trying to stop the flow of urine mid-flow.
For men, (as you breathe out) contract your core by gently drawing the testicles up into your pelvis. This will also feel similar to trying to stop the flow of urine mid-flow or walking into cold water.
When engaging the core, you should feel a gentle tightening at the base of the abdomen (about a 30% intensity). You don’t want to feel a tightening around the base of the ribs and you definitely don’t want your lower back position changing. Also, your buttock muscles should not be clenched.
Exercises for the Core
- Continuing to breathe whilst maintaining the 30% core contraction. 10 breaths then rest.
- Practice lowering one knee to the side whilst maintaining core activation. The knee moves but the pelvis remains still (place hands on ASIS’s to monitor pelvic stability).
- Lift one foot off the floor, then lower, then lift the other foot and lower.
- Starting with both feet lifted and lowering one foot at a time to tap on the floor.
- Lift both feet off the floor, then lower both feet (ensuring not to flatten the lower back).