In a fitness world loaded with recommendations and catch phrases about the “core” and “core strength,” it can be confusing to navigate this complex topic.
It’s time to move towards a more informed, accurate and applicable understanding of the core so that we can make contact with it in a beneficial way.
What is the “core” anyway?
Different body paradigms and methodologies have slightly varying definitions of the core. The explanation I offer here is informed by the work of Dr. Ida P. Rolf, a scientist and the creator of Structural Integration bodywork, and Joseph Pilates. Both were powerful and brilliant body and movement experts who thought about the core in compatible ways.
The core consists of the deepest layers of muscles in the body. When visualizing the core of a human body, think about the core of an apple—it’s the deepest part and runs along the axis. Core muscles include the deep muscles of the spine, the deep layers of abdominal muscles (psoas and transverse abdominus), the muscles of the pelvic floor, the diaphragm and the inner muscles of the ribcage (inner intercostals).
Myths About Core
Myth #1: Core strength is about getting a “six-pack” and/or a “flat tummy”. The muscle that creates the six-pack appearance is the rectus abdominus muscle, the most superficial abdominal muscle (meaning it lies closest to the surface). This makes the rectus inherently not a core muscle. Strengthening the core is about totally different muscles. More often than not, the main role that an overly worked-out rectus abdominus plays in core strengthening is that it interferes; in this case the rectus needs to relax and soften in order to access the real core body.
Myth #2: I should do sit-ups to strengthen my core. It’s possible to do something that resembles a sit-up or a crunch that might fire up the core muscles, but more often than not, traditional sit-ups tend to activate muscles (like the rectus abdominus) which are not part of the core. Many people who do a lot of sit-ups have to go through a process of un-doing all the unbalanced strength they accumulated because that “strength” interferes with true core awakening.
Myth #3: If I go to a Pilates class, I am definitely working my core. It is possible, and common, to participate in exercises that are considered core-targeted in essence, but, due to weakness or a misunderstanding of how to execute the movement, end up using muscles which aren’t the core. Really using the core in core-targeted exercises requires skill and nuanced understanding of how to engage internally.
What do you mean by an “integrated” core?
In this context, integrated means that we aren’t talking about someone who is solid in deep layers and soft everywhere else or vice versa– what we are looking for is powerful balance. The core should be strong so that it is healthy and alive in a way that is appropriate relative to the rest of the body. If someone has a very strong, contracted core and very weak limbs and outer-layer muscles, then in order for that person to cultivate an integrated core and an integrated body, he/she would need to focus on releasing and lengthening the core and strengthening the non-core muscles that are weaker.
In an integrated body, muscles have balanced strength relative to each other, and true flexibility means that muscles and surrounding tissue (fascia) have balanced flexibility relative to each other. A random muscle which is “strong” or a random muscle which is “flexible” doesn’t mean much in the world of body integration; anything meaningful is about relationship and balance.
Why work on the core body?
Here are three good reasons:
1) Protect your back! An appropriately strong and healthy core will ensure that your back doesn’t have to work overtime. As the core muscles get strong, they also lengthen, providing a sturdy structural support for the spinal column, and preventing spinal compression and related ailments (of which there are many).
2) Diminish chronic tightness and muscular compensation patterns. A weak core will have back muscles working overtime and it doesn’t end there. Chronically tight hips and shoulders can also be the result of a sleepy or weak core. The body craves a proper division of muscular labor. If some muscles are under-working, others will be over-working. This manifests differently in every person. When each muscle is “doing its dharma,” there’s way more functional harmony.
3) Changes in other layers of your being. As you create a stable core, examine changes that might occur in your mental and emotional bodies and in other parts of your life. The state of the core is the physiological expression of something deep inside of you.
Here are 10 tips for exploring your core and cultivating a healthy core body.
This is foundational information that will help you get more out of Pilates classes, yoga classes, and exercise in general. Work towards generating that deep muscular support that is so healthy and make meaningful contact with the inner-most landscape of yourself.
1. Relax the outer layers. The deep core muscles often get overpowered and shut down by the strong (and often over-active) outer layers of muscle. By relaxing the outer back muscles and superficial belly muscles (like the rectus-abdominus-6-pack muscle and the external obliques) and imprinting that letting go, you give the deeper muscles a chance to wake up and be utilized in the body.
Your body has a natural intelligence and those core muscles want to be alive and well! By removing the surrounding tension, it allows that natural intelligence to emerge.
2. Lengthen your trunk, especially your abdomen. Creating length goes hand in hand with relaxation. Once tension patterns in the sleeve and in the abdomen are relaxed and neutralized, the next step is to introduce length. Utilizing gentle, internally generated engagement, and active arms and legs, practice creating length in your trunk and in your abdomen in creative ways.
Generating length works well in side bending, twisting, or even playfully stretching out on the floor. Feel how you can lengthen the back side of the trunk, the front side and the plane deep inside the trunk between the front and the back.
3. Forget about the six-pack. Igniting your core isn’t about gaining that six-pack. The six-pack muscle is an important abdominal muscle (which, by the way, doesn’t have to be a washboard to be in tact), but it is not a core muscle. A pre-occupation with creating a visual effect in the abdomen might actually interfere with the introspective and nuanced process of contacting your true core.
Culturally, we are too focused on appearances, and the appearances that we worship have been conditioned in us. Our culture values and understands a six-pack as a desirable abdomen more than an integrated, alive psoas muscle and a belly which embodies internal length and receptivity. As conscious practitioners, we need to recognize and transcend this shallow conditioning and focus on the physiology and consciousness that matters the most. In this way we can rebuild and exemplify a new, more intelligent, healthier and compassionate value system.
4. Visualize your psoas. The psoas is a primary and important core muscle. It runs along the front of the lumbar spine (one on each side), connects all the way down at the very top of the inner femur and functions as a deep hip flexor muscle (quite relevant to everyday activities like walking!) It is a deep abdominal muscle that lies behind the abdominal organs and can also be considered a “back” muscle because of its adjacency to the anterior spine.
The alignment and functional health (or lack thereof) of the psoas has a profound impact on the health of the lumbar spine and whole lumbar area. You can think of your psoas as a supportive muscular “spacer” for the lumbar vertebrae, keeping them adequately spaced out and supported. Compression may cause a whole slew of back problems like arthritic conditions and slipped, herniated and bulging discs.
Being able to visualize the psoas will help to access it in targeted strengthening exercises and stretches. Awareness of the psoas can also be powerful in any yoga pose or exercise—almost any movement or activity in life can be enhanced by checking in with the psoas and inviting your consciousness to brighten it up.
5. Distinguish between “core” and “sleeve” in movement.
In Dr. Ida Rolf’s model of the core body, she articulates the distinction between core and sleeve. The core muscles work together as a functional unit. All the muscles other than the core make up the “sleeve.” Sleeve muscles work together too. Play with movement that is initiated and supported by core muscles. Then play with movement that is initiated and supported by sleeve muscles.
In dynamic exercise, sports and yoga, and even in normal life, our movement ideally transfers from core to sleeve to core to sleeve, gracefully and effortlessly and naturally, and the core and sleeve are in constant conversation. Explore how an alive, strong core can support sleeve limbs and outer layers.
6. Spinal extension, slow and steady. In active spinal extension exercises, like salambhasana, there is an opportunity to work delicately and intricately with the deepest spinal muscles. Abruptly or aggressively practicing spinal extensions will kick in the outer layers of back muscles. Enter these poses smoothly and slowly. Try meditating on the deepest areas around the vertebrae. This will ignite the core back muscles, cultivating their tone and imprinting their wakefulness while keeping the sleeve quiet and secondary.
7. Pay attention to your pelvic floor. The space between your sitting bones, pubic bone, and tailbone is a mysterious universe in an of itself. Get to know it, study it, feel into it. There are infinite ways to engage (and relax) this part of the body, and simply exploring and experimenting in this arena is a great pre-requisite for success in pelvic floor exercises as done in yoga, Pilates, kegels, and mula bandha.
8. Breath awareness. Breathing is so intimately connected to the core body. The diaphragm and inner intercostals are important core muscles—since all the core muscles essentially and ultimately work as a unit, the movement and flow of the breath is intricately intertwined with all core engagement. Take some time every day to study your breath as a witness and discover inside yourself how it contributes to the essence of the core. Find a great pranayama teacher to learn some traditional breathing exercises to practice; they have immeasurable benefits.
9. Feel into the central axis. This is the ultimate yogic exercise. The central axis of the body is the sacred energy channel. It is the realm of the ancient (and contemporary) yogi. Breathe into the central axis of the body, use the power of your consciousness to invite a sense of openness in the channel. Yoga asanas will help to release physiological and energetic blockages. Feel the central channel from the base of the pelvis all the way up through the top of the head. When your mind inhabits this space, you are living in your core body.
Hint: relax, open, and lift the very back of your throat. This is a powerful entryway of the central axis.
10. Learn the bandhas and kriyas properly. There are some practices in the yoga tradition that deal specifically with core engagement, both physically and energetically. Uddiyana bandha kriya is a cleansing practice in which there is an interesting and unusual muscular engagement of the core muscles at the end of the exhalation, particularly the diaphragm. Nauli is a cleansing practice in which the abdominal organs are massaged internally and stimulated. In another form of uddiyana bandha appropriate to engage during asana practice, the deep lower abdominals are awake and pulled gently towards the spine and a lightness is created in the abdominal organs. In mula bandha, the perineum (muscle of the pelvic floor) is intricately and delicately engaged (a practice which is more elusive than most people think).
It’s always worthwhile to study these techniques with a knowledgeable teacher. It’s easy to misuse and misunderstand these practices, which must be done in the context of an informed, safe breathing sequence and by engaging in the correct manner.
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Editor: Malin Bergman