If you talk to anybody about getting in shape they always tell you about how important core stability is, but what is core stability? How does it help us? How do you know when your core is actually working? Is the best way to strengthen our core through performing hundreds of sit-ups a day, or should we be doing more planks? These are the types of questions we have all asked ourselves at some point and time during our commitment to “getting in shape.” I would like to shed some light on these questions in hopes of leading you to getting the most out of your core during your workouts.
Your core does not just refer to your abdominal wall, but your lower back, psoas, pelvic floor and obliques as well.
This ring of muscles is what hold us up all day and protects our spine from injury. Core stability refers to the effectiveness of these muscles to ensure proper balance and stability in any and all positions we find ourselves during the day. Whether we are walking around the house or competing in a sport, our core is tasked with the responsibility of keeping the rest of our body in proper alignment to avoid injury. Envision your core as the foundation of your home. If there are cracks in the foundation or if it is uneven, it results in damage to the rest of your house. These issues usually don’t arise overnight, but progressively get worse and worse as time goes on. This is exactly how our body works! We can get away with a core that is inactive or lazy for a while, but eventually it all catches up to us in the form of discomfort, pain, or injury.
If you had to choose one marker to ensure that your core was properly firing it would be your rib cage. Your abdominal wall is designed to hold your ribs down when activated, creating stability around your entire midsection. When your rib cage is in a downward position, your abs are activated and your back is flat. If you look at yourself in a mirror from the side you can see how quickly changing your rib position alters the positioning of your spine (Figure A- ribs up, and Figure B-ribs down). When your ribs rise into an upward position, the result is an increase of extension in the lower back which is often one of the major culprits of low back pain. When your ribs rest in a downward position your spine is protected and stable.
A great way to test and see how well your core is working is by lying flat on your back with your legs bent at a 45 degree angle. Place a belt or strap under your low back and see if you can keep the strap pressed against the floor as you put constant tension with one of your hands trying to pull it out from underneath you (Figure C). Remember to breathe as you do this, because holding your breath is considered cheating, seeing that we can’t go through our life holding our breath all day. If the strap slips out, it means your core isn’t working properly and your back is in an extended position. If you want to increase the difficulty of this exercise, move your feet further away from your body and see if you can continue to keep the strap down. If the strap begins to slide out from underneath you, bring your legs back closer to your body and work on making your breathing in this position effortless while keeping the strap down. The ultimate goal is to be able to hold the strap down with both of your legs all the way out flat on the floor. As a general rule of thumb, keep your ribs down and back flat in all of your exercises to ensure that your core is activated.
Although sit-ups have been the gold standard of “core strength” for most of our lifetimes, I would contend that there may be other exercises that can better estimate the true strength of someone’s core.
One such exercise would be the plank.
The plank is a direct reflection of your core’s ability to stabilize your body when it is under a load. It requires you to maintain a downward rib position to ensure a flat and stable spine, as well as lat activation to hold the shoulders in proper alignment as well. Even your glutes have to work during a plank to hold everything together (Figure D). Sit-ups often become dominated by hip flexion so the core is only minimally active during this exercise for most people. I would recommend spending more time working on a perfect plank position than seeing how many sit-ups you can do in a minute.
Now that we know what our core is, what it does for us, and how to tell if it is actually working, what’s next? I know, let’s get it strong!!! Once your foundation is able to create proper stability, the next step is to strengthen it so it can handle anything you throw at it. The only way to truly know if your body is functioning properly is to see a certified professional who can perform a Functional Movement Screen on you and see if there are any dysfunctional movements going on in other areas of your body.
All of the staff at Athletes Choice is well-educated and equipped in determining where dysfunctional movements may lie, so feel free to reach out to us on our website or give us a call to schedule a Movement Screening. Good luck to each of you in all of your fitness endeavors!