Everyone wants a strong core, but what exactly does that mean?

Most people think about the core as the “six-pack muscles” (rectus abdominis) and spend the majority of their workout strengthening these muscles in search of stability. While the rectus abdominis are great to look at and nice to have, they will not stabilize your spine by themselves.

Instead, the rectus abdominis muscles have a tendency to do the opposite, creating instability in the lumbar spine and poor posture if over developed. I’ve had many clients come to me who religiously did crunches everyday but still had back pain. You can imagine their surprise when I told them that they had it all wrong. Instead, you need the deep core muscles to work synergistically to create stability during movement. These muscles will not only protect your spine but also improve balance and posture. The deep core muscles are composed of:

transversus abdominis (TrA)
lumbar multifidus (LM)
internal oblique (IO)
pelvic floor

When these muscles co-contract they create a corset effect pulling the navel back towards the spine and hollowing the abdomen.

The effectiveness of core stability training lies in the sequence in which the muscles are recruited. Rather than simply moving through the exercises and repeating reps you need to train the correct muscles to fire in a specific order. Otherwise, you are strengthening the existing patterns, which caused the issue in the first place. For example, the LM has been found to be weak and firing out of order in people with back pain. To perform the exercise properly you would need to first develop the ability to recruit the LM, then practice engaging the LM followed by the TrA, and finally contracting both muscles together with added movement from the arms and legs.

In other words you are trying to refine your ability to think about a muscle contracting and have it actually contract. This is bringing your intention into action. Once you can put intention into action, you are ready to move on to the next stage by adding a second muscle group. Here are the steps:

1. Contract muscle one, the LM
2. Continue contracting LM and try to contract the second muscle group, the TrA
3. Contract the LM and TrA, hold the contraction of both muscles and raise your arm (note: you will find that raising your arm will make both muscles try to release)
4. Here is the main challenge: Can you keep both the muscles contracted in movement?

The initial goal with core stability training is to co-contract the TrA and the LM as these are the base for core stability and often where the weakness or recruitment problems occur. An excellent exercise for learning to co-contract these muscles is the “abdominal hollowing” technique which I covered in the article on the SI Joint.

Once you have learned how to co-contract the TrA and LM it is time to bring the action into movement and challenge the muscles to work in various positions. Table Top is an effective pose to practice recruiting the deep core muscles while adding movement in the arms and legs. Remember to first engage the deep core, hollow the abdomen and then bring movement into the arms or legs. Training the correct muscles to fire in a specific order is the foundation of a good core strengthening routine.