The Importance of Activating Your Core Muscles

Activating your core muscles

Contrary to widely held belief, having a strong core is not the same as having a six-pack. These are completely different muscles with different functions in the body. Lower back pain or injury to the abdominals may cause a delay or even absence in the contraction of the core muscles which could lead to further dysfunction and pain. Having a strong core can help your body’s performance in daily activities as well as sporting activities and even help prevent future injuries.

The function of your core muscles is to prevent excessive translation in the joints, or in other words to stabilise the joint, which reduces wear and tear and helps to protect structures such as discs and ligaments against injury. In contrast, your superficial muscles provide movement to joints. These muscles are engaged in separate ways and therefore you can have a six-pack and still have weak core muscle since you cannot strengthen your core muscles by doing the regular sit-up or by planking. Sometimes your superficial muscles can compensate for weak core muscles, leading to pain and dysfunction. Therefore, teaching your body to activate your core muscles can improve pain and allow your body to function at its full potential.

Although there is more than one core muscle in the trunk, the focus in this article will be on the Transversus Abdominis (TA) which is the deepest of your abdominal muscles. It is attached from your lower ribs to your pelvis and sits like a corset around your middle. Technically you cannot strengthen your TA, but you can teach your body to activate the muscle and then train the muscle to stabilise the spine in various positions until eventually the brain will make the connection to the muscle on its own without you needing to remind it. Here is how you activate it:

Find your neutral spine

Your core muscles work best when the joints are aligned in a neutral position. To find your neutral spine, lie on your back with your knees bent. Push your tailbone into the floor to round your lower back by tilting the pelvis forward. Next tilt the pelvis backwards to round your lower back into the floor. Repeat the action of tilting your pelvis backwards and forwards until you find the position where your pelvis is not forward nor backward but in the middle. The front of your hip bones and your pubic bone should be at the same level and it should feel as if there is space to slide you hand underneath the small of your back. Maintain this neutral position always during the exercises.

Activate TA

There are several ways to activate your TA muscle since every individual will respond to different methods. Firstly, gently sink your fingertips into your abdominals 2cm inwards and 2cm downwards from the front of your hip bones. Try a few of these and see which one works best for you:

  1. Imagine a line drawn across your abdominals right below the naval, form one hip bone to the other. In your head, make that line shorter, pulling the two hip bones closer together. You should feel a very subtle engagement of muscles underneath your fingertips.
  2. Imagine the same line across your abdomen as above. Without letting the pelvis move out of its neutral position, try pull your stomach muscles slightly away from this imaginary line towards your spine i.e. pull your navel towards your spine without letting your pelvis move.
  3. If you struggled with the above methods, you can try activating your TA via your pelvic floor muscles, very similar to Kegel exercises. Imagine you have been drinking water all day and you are bursting. That muscle you use to “squeeze”, if you squeeze it gently you should feel the core muscles activating underneath your fingertips.

Great, you have found your TA! Try find it again and give 100% activation. Contract it as hard as you can without losing your neutral spine. Now relax until you are only giving 20% effort. This is all effort that your TA needs to be effectively stabilising. The reasoning is that your core muscles should ideally be working every minute of every day and if they will be working at 100% contraction, they will soon tire out. Giving a 100% activation can also lead to what is called “bracing” which leads to strain placed on the discs in the spine and is exactly the opposite intention of core training. Training should be low effort so that they can stay active the entire day.

Initially core training will be just finding your neutral spine and activating your TA. Start with trying to hold that 20% contraction while breathing for 5 seconds. You might lose it before the time is up or you might take to it like a duck to water but make sure that you can at least find and hold it 5 times 5 seconds before moving on to the next stage.

Core training

The ultimate goal of your core muscles is to stabilise your spine during movement therefore the next step is seeing if you can find your neutral spine and activate your TA in various positions. Try the above exercise in both sitting and standing before progressing.

After finding your neutral pelvis and activating your core muscles try the following exercises to challenge the TA:

Bent knee fall out

  1. Start on your back with your knees bent.
  2. Keep your feet and knees hip width apart
  3. Keep your pelvis as still as possible activate your TA and let your one knee drop to the side. Only take it as far out as you can without losing control of the pelvis’s neutral position.
  4. Bring it back to the middle and repeat with the other side.
  5. Do at least 5 on each side

Leg extensions

  1. Knees bent with a neutral spine and TA activated. Hold this position.
  2. Straighten one leg, keeping the TA activated and neutral spine.
  3. Bring the leg back and repeat on the other side

Toe taps

  1. Knees bent, neutral spine, TA activated
  2. Lift one leg up with the knee and hip bent at 90 degrees (your shin should be parallel to the floor and your thigh perpendicular to the ceiling)
  3. Hold this 90/90 degree angle then tap your toe on the floor, almost like hinging your leg from the hip socket. Ensure that your pelvis remains as still as possible
  4. Repeat x 5 on one leg before repeating on the other side

These exercises are subtle and initially take a lot of concentration but eventually, it will become much more natural. Don’t worry if you struggle at first, your body might not have used this muscle in a long time and will struggle activating it. If you continue to struggle, you might need a bit of help from a physio or Pilates instructor to guide you and ensure you are doing everything correctly. Having a strong core is just one of the steps towards a stronger, pain free body but it is a step in the right direction.