What is core strength and why do I need it?
When a person talks about having a strong core, the majority of us will immediately think of having a six-pack, and the thousands of crunches and planks it has taken to get it. Patients will often come for treatment with the knowledge that having a strong core is important to injury prevention, however, are unaware what having great core strength really means. Unfortunately, you can have a ripped six-pack and poor core strength, they are not synonymous to one another. Here, I am going to demystify the idea of what your ‘core’ really is, and why having a strong core really is important for injury prevention and overall good mobility.
So, what is my core?
To begin with, your ‘core’ is more than just a six-pack! The core, as seen in the pictures below is made up of a group of both deep and superficial muscles. Your deep muscles are classed as your inner core: transverse abdominus, the pelvic floor, the diaphragm and multifidus (Figure 1). The superficial muscles are classed as the outer core and include your rectus abdominus (six-pack), internal obliques and external obliques (Figure 2). Collectively, we refer to these muscles as your core. These are the muscles we are addressing when we talk about having a strong core. These muscles should work together as one unit.
When we talk about core strength, we are talking about those inner core muscles that activate to support our spine and pelvis in movement. Think of these inner core muscles as the main load bearing walls within a house. Without a solid internal support system, we would not have a strong, load-bearing house – we need the solid internal structure for the house to be strong. With a solid inner core, our house is safe from excess movement which may damage it. If we have poor strength in our core, it is like building our house with popsicle sticks rather than solid wooden beams. Our house does not have the stability it needs within its core. If we translate this idea to the human body, without a strong inner core, we have poor overall stability which could lead to pain and injuries with movement. Luckily, through Pilates, we have the ability to not only learn to activate our core, but strengthen these muscles to create a strong internal support system, and thus prevent injury or pain.
Why do I need to ‘turn it on’?
This is especially important in those who suffer from low back pain. Our low back, also known as our lumbar spine should ideally sit in a neutral position throughout the day. A neutral spine puts the least amount of stress on the joints and ligaments in the lower back, decreasing the chance of injury. In today’s day and age, we all spend a lot of time sitting in our cars and at desks which can often lead to poor posture and the loss of our neutral spine. By learning about our neutral spine and activating our core throughout the day, we are creating a strong core structure which can prevent the irritation or excess load on the tissues in the low back.
Although I have mentioned the importance of ‘switching on’ your core to improve posture and maintain a neutral spine, having a strong core is important for all activities, whether that be playing football, running around with your children or clearing out that cupboard you have been avoiding! Remember the analogy of a strong internal support system within your house. Having a strong, ‘switched on’ core allows our arms and legs to move freely while providing our spine and pelvis with the appropriate support it needs.How can Pilates help?
Pilates is all about understanding your own body and teaching it to move in a controlled way. Pilates focuses on identifying our inner core and learning to engage it in a purposeful way throughout a class. The more we activate our core in a purposeful way, the more incidental activation we have through our normal activities of daily living. With ongoing practice, your core will actively support you without you consciously having to think about it! Awesome!
When practised correctly, Pilates can be an amazing form of whole-body exercise, not only a core strengthening tool. Due to the precise nature of Pilates, a close, hands-on approach can be beneficial to ensuring correct technique is used. Physiolates is focused around small class sizes or in a 1:1/ 2:1 approach to ensure maximal benefit is gained from each exercise. No-one should feel forgotten in a class! As Physiotherapist’s, we can ensure you are performing each exercise correctly and give direction and support where needed. In Physiolates, we aim to educate our clients about the difference between the inner and outer core and how to activate each muscle group appropriately when partaking in Pilates. This ensures you know what you are trying to achieve through each exercise, leaving you feeling more confident in your technique.
Many of our clients appreciate the small class sizes as they feel they are getting the support and hands-on guidance they need, as people often feel lost in larger group Pilates classes.
So what core exercises should I be doing in Pilates?
The good news is that all Pilates exercises incorporate core strength and control! Prior to each exercise, your instructor will ensure you have engaged your core to ensure you are getting a good contraction through each movement. Some exercises which aim more at core strength include:
- Abdominal preparation
- Oblique preparation
- Hip Twist
I hope this has unveiled the mystery of what a strong core truly means as well as highlighting its use in everyday living. Everyone can benefit from Pilates. Understanding what your core is and how to activate it is a useful and lifelong skill that we should all know!