★ CORE MUSCLES | How do I know if I am using my core? ★

CORE MUSCLES |  How do I know if I am using my core?

Before we begin, close your eyes and imagine the core muscles as a CORSET around your middle section or even better imaging it being a CYLINDER with TOP & BOTTOM and your spine inside it.

However the CORSET or CYLINDER is underneath the rectus abdominis (6 packs muscles) and the superficial back muscles.

How do I know if I am using my core?
Simple… if you are not contracting it, as in a Pelvic Floor Contractions than you are not engaging your core.

No point in reading any further really… you learnt it that is it! Just kidding, well kind of.

If you are exercising without the right contraction, you are just straining your body and placing stress in other parts, like your spine, and specifically the lumbar region (lower back).
You can often see this in the gym when people are doing Shoulder Press, Press ups, Bench Press, Barbell Rows, Deadlifts, Planks etc... with their spine arched, stomach bulging out and bad posture.

Most people focus on sit-ups likes crunches and leg raises but the truth is… you are mainly working the rectus abdominis (the 6 packs muscles), which are not so important compared to the others listed below as you are only working on the superficial muscles instead of the really deep ones – The Stabilizers.

The transversus for instance works like a BELT. Just think, tighter the belt better your trousers will hold up and at the same time it will hold your stomach in. Well!!!! The transversus does exactly that. It holds your stomach in, holds your spine tight, more upright, better posture etc…

Do you want a FLATTER looking STOMACH? Stop concentrating too much on your rectus abdominis then! By the way sit-ups does not give you flat stomach, the only way to get a 6-packs is by changing the way you eat – read my blog here – Sugar the Bitter Truth

Maybe we should use the quote,
“Strength Comes From Within”

As in working the inner/deeper muscle vs the superficial not so important ones.


Why Should We Bother?
For a non-elite athlete, I only see two reasons.

1) Injury Prevention = Quality of life. I am not just talking about when exercising… it is about preventing injuries for/during everyday tasks.

2) Male and Female might encounter at some point of their lives - incontinence - It is not clear exactly how many people are affected, but it is estimated that between three and six million people in the UK have some degree of urinary incontinence.

Urinary incontinence affects about twice as many women as men and becomes more common with age. As well as after giving birth - there is a more specific way how to train your Pelvic Floor Muscles for this reason. I ll cover this training on a separated blog.

A comprehensive strengthening programme
of these core muscles can be used for
injury prevention, rehabilitation and sport performance enhancement

Would you like to get stronger on your
Bench Press? What about on your Deadlifts? Stronger overall?

Just get your CORE stronger!  

Bad Back as an example can be debilitating, affecting your quality of life.
Sometimes it can be easily fixed with the RIGHT core exercises or just by stretching specific areas as tight muscles can cause unwanted back pain and even symptoms just like sciatica.

Visit www.PhysioFix.co.uk Launceston Cornwall PL15.

Core Muscles Theory
The core can be thought of as a cylinder of muscles around the inner surface of the abdomen. There are 4 main muscle groups considered:

Transversus Abdominis - This is the most important of the abdominal muscle and has also been found to be in a weakened state in those who have chronic back pain or problem and It is deepest of all the abdominal muscles lying under the oblique abdominals and rectus abdominis (the 6-pack muscle). It is this muscle that is considered to be the corset of muscle providing stability. It connects to the individual vertebrae of the lower (lumbar) spine and wraps right around each side to meet in the mid line of the front of the abdomen. When contracted it functions to both increase the pressure inside the abdomen and pull tightly on the vertebrae themselves to provide exceptional stability to the spine.

Multifidis - This deep back muscle lies on either side of the spine and again connects to each individual lumbar vertebrae. It functions in extending (bending back) the spine as well as being an essential postural muscle keeping the spine upright.

Diaphragm - The primary muscle for breathing, the domed diaphragm provides the top of the cylinder core. When the Transversus Abdominis contracts, the diaphragm tightens to maintain pressure in the abdomen and so provides stability to the spine.

Pelvic Floor - Famous among pregnant women, the pelvic floor muscles provide a sling. Running from back to front, from the bottom tip of the spine (the tail bone) to the front of the pelvis. It contracts simultaneously with the transversus abdominis to form the bottom of the cylinder of muscles.

When all these muscles contract together they keep the spine in its most stable position or the neutral zone, and aid in preventing injury. They are known to contract prior to any arm or leg movement and so they function in keeping the centre, of the body rigid during all movement.

Recent evidence has found that in people with low back pain, these muscles fail to contract before limb movement and so the spine is vulnerable to injury. Thus re-training these muscles to contract at the right time is the fundamental theory of core stability.

The core muscles are the powerhouse of the body and allow smooth contraction and movement of the arms, legs and back.

By the way, sucking in your stomach’ is NOT the same as engaging your Transversus Abdominis muscle. The same goes for squeezing your bum cheeks together is not activating your pelvic floor muscles.

It’s merely shifting pressure + mass upwards or downwards. If you suck it all in hard + your waist goes narrower (it will for as long as you hold your breath anyway), all the stuff that was hanging out has gone somewhere. Upwards, pushing into your diaphragm, or downwards pushing onto your pelvic floor. Imagine a tube of toothpaste. If you squeeze in the middle… the contents of the middle of the tube haven’t disappeared, they have moved.

So ‘sucking in your stomach’ is not training muscles. It’s shifting pressure + displacing mass.
Squeezing your bum cheeks is not training your pelvic floor. It is just contracting your gluteus.

Don’t forget that your back/spine alignment is very important as well when exercising… have a look at my video here – Pelvic Tilt – www.youtube.com/RPTtv especially if you Plank, Shoulder Press, Press ups, Bench Press, Barbell Rows, Deadlifts to name a few.

Different visualizing techniques are used to contract the core and everyone normally has one that works best for them. Find the technique that works for you and stick to it.
Use your preferred method to engage your core muscles, while standing, lying, kneeling, and sitting – basically ANY position!
During the Whole Time!

Palpation of Transversus Abdominis
In order to know whether you are contracting the correct muscles it is necessary to be able to feel them working.

1 - Place your hands on the bony parts at the front of your hips. These are known as your anterior superior iliac spines (asis).
2 - Move your hands in an inch towards your belly button
3 - Move your hands down an inch towards your toes.

You should now be directly over the transversus abdominis muscle. Remember, it is behind the rectus abidominis, so you can’t see it but you can feel it.

As all the core muscles co-contract, when you feel your transversus contract the others will be contracting also.

Keep your hands in this position and try each of the techniques below to find which one works for you.

How do I know if I'm engaging my core?
When you contract your core correctly you should feel a gentle tightening under your fingers when they are in the above position. If you feel a bulge you are contracting too much.

The correct level of activity in core muscles should be 30% of their maximum so that they have enough energy to contract continuously.

To contract the right amount, use the techniques below to maximally contract, then leave off the contraction by half and then by half again. This takes practice but is extremely important to get right in the early stages.

Failure to contract properly will mean unwanted contraction
of the larger muscles surrounding the core.

These will take over movements and thus
defeat the aim of the exercises.

All the following movements should be carried out whilst lying on a firm surface. Bend your knees and hips so that you are lying comfortably on your back with your knees up and feet shoulder width apart. Make sure your shoulders are relaxed and concentrate on breathing into the sides of your ribcage to take emphasis off the diaphragm - try not to breath into your abdomen and not into your upper chest.
Remember to breath normally throughout all the exercises- it is common for beginners to hold their breath as they focus on contracting the core.

Core Contraction Technique
1- Whilst lying in the above position, imagine that a belt with 10 notches is tied around your abdomen. Take a deep breath in and on exhalation visualize that the belt is being fastened up to the tenth notch. Using the above transversus palpation technique can you feel a tightening (not bulging) under your fingers? Now visualize leaving the belt off to the 3rd notch.

2- In the same position as above take a deep breath in. On exhalation focus trying to lower your belly button down towards the floor. Palpate for a contraction of the transversus. Now ease the contraction off to about 30% of its max.
The above techniques focus on contracting transversus abdominis however it is common to find these exercises difficult. The next technique is focused on contracting the pelvic floor as an alternative.

3- In the same position as above take a deep breath. On exhaling focus on 'drawing up' from the pelvic floor. Imagine that you wish to stop yourself going to the toilet however make sure you do not over use the other abdominal muscles- this would result in a 'bulge' rather that a tightening under your fingers and don’t clench your buttocks, draw your insides up - suck it up/pull it up!

4- As a TEST PURPOSE ONLY, try stoping the flow of urine next time you go to the toilet. If you can stop to order, this is your Pelvic Floor Muscles. (Be aware - for test purposes only - Do NOT do this on a regular basis as it can affect your bladder.)

 Bread Loaf
 When performing a lower abdominal exercise such as the leg lift, you can tell if you are not using the transversus abdominis if your rectus abdominis (your six pack muscle) pokes out and looks like a bread loaf!
Contract/Engage the transversus abdominis
before you lift the legs and see if
the “loaf” stays flat and engaged.
Choose one of these techniques and practice it until you can do it quite easily. It may take practicing each technique a few times before you decide which one works best for you. Once you can achieve a good independent core contraction you are ready to begin the core stability program.
Say the following to yourself

Breathe” while holding together my centre.
The ideal contraction is 1 exhale, 2 draw belly button gently back to spine and 3 draw pelvic floor gently up. Once this is mastered, after exhale, learn to do number 2 and 3 simultaneously. As said before once one contracts, the others should contract as well.

Last but not least
Intra Abdominal Pressure - This is why your stomach muscles push out, why you get diastasis recti, hernia, prolapse + a tummy you don’t like. You need to reverse this pressure to get a tummy that looks + feels like you want it to, for the long term. This is about alignment + learning to use your entire core system right.

Best Way to Work Your Core
The best way to work you core is by exercising on unstable surface, using Balance Board, Buso, Swiss Ball, Wobble Cushion, exercises standing in one leg, cross over movements and static contractions positions like Plank as well as Plyo Training and Martial Arts like Capoeira.

However, as I said before, “…If you are exercising without the right contraction, you are just straining your body and placing stress in other parts. Most often than not, places you should not, like your spine, and specifically the lumbar region (lower back)…

You don’t really work your core by lying of your back and doing crunches, or by doing leg raises or any sit-ups of this kind…

Come to my > EXTREME FIT CORE CLASS < to learn more!

Do you experience lower back pain when Planking? Easily fixed!

1 – Engage your core as mentioned above
2 – Don’t forget that your back/spine alignment is very important as well when exercising… have a look at my video here – Pelvic Tilt – www.youtube.com/RPTtv especially if you Plank, Shoulder Press, Press ups, Bench Press, Barbell Rows, Deadlifts to name a few.

You have to address the cause, not the symptoms.

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Thank you for reading

Rodrigo Peres
Nutritional Consultant
Personal Trainer





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