Activate your core!
You hear this phrase all the time throughout various Yoga, Pilates, and strength training classes, but what exactly does it mean to activate your core?
Well, it’s not exactly what you might think!
Before we talk about activating, the first thing we need to do is really understand what makes up the core. I know it sounds pretty fundamental, but in actuality most people don’t really know.
The core is simply a group of muscles that wrap around the torso and connect your pelvis to the rib cage as well as stabilize the spine and hold our organs up and inside the body. The core is essential because it provides the support necessary for all these movements we do on a daily basis (lift, climb, reach, pull, push, squat, deadlift, carry, throw, catch, jump, lunge, etc.). It also holds us up against gravity by maintaining upright posture throughout the day. How crazy is that?!
The main muscle of your core is the Transversus Abdominis (TVA). It is the deepest of your abdominal muscles and it wraps around the abdomen between your lower ribs and top of your pelvis. Many fitness, Yoga, and Pilates instructors refer to this muscle as the body’s “internal girdle” because of its wrapping effect across the abdomen creating a natural abdominal compression that narrows the waist.
The role of the TVA is to provide stability for the lower back and pelvis BEFORE movement of the arms and legs occur, so that better force generation and transfer of energy across the body can take place. Stability of the spine and pelvis NEEDS to occur, so that we can move our entire body more efficiently throughout everyday life.
Your core activates when 2 conditions are met:
- The pelvis and rib cage are aligned with good posture (not collapsed, bulged or in a crunch position)…think “ribs over hips” cue.
- The transversus activates when we exhale and draw our lower belly back towards our tailbone (not when we hold our breath or tense the tummy).
So if this is the case then the next question that comes up for my coaching clients is…
“So then can’t I just stand tall and suck my tummy in all day??”
Standing tall can help to get the body into better alignment, but the question is can you maintain that good alignment throughout the day. Answer is probably not because a weak core is part of the reason why you don’t have the functional strength to stand tall throughout the majority of the day. Just like the rest of the body, we have to improve posture and the functional strength of the core by working on it regularly and consistently. Remember that old saying…use it or lose it!?
“Sucking it in” all day actually does the opposite of what needs to happen in order for your core to engage and activate. First, the transverse abdominis engages/activates on the exhale of the breath not the inhale. Sucking in is an inhale that flares the ribs but does not really effectively activate the core. Second, our core postural muscles are more endurance like in that they have the capacity to be “turned on” all day long to hold us up against gravity, but they do not need to be tight and tense all day to do so. Tensing these core muscles all day actually causes them to be ineffective and weaken over time.
Let’s look at a better way to activate your core AND what you shouldn’t and should be doing:
1. BULGING/BRACING CORE
This is what we want to avoid at ALL times…especially postpartum women. When we brace our cores this causes us to hold our breath, tense the tummy, and bulge through the abdominal wall and pelvic floor to try to stabilize against a challenge. This is actually a compensation strategy to use intra-abdominal air pressure as a form of stability when the core isn’t able to stabilize well enough. This type of stabilization strategy is used when we grunt and strain to lift a heavy item off the floor or overhead. On a side note…sometimes this type of stabilization strategy is needed, but it shouldn’t be one that’s implemented all the time.
Like I mentioned above, bracing or bulging the core actually pushes out on your abdominal wall, and doing this multiple times a day, or even all day long in some cases sends the opposite signal to transverse abs, and can directly cause conditions like diastasis recti, abdominal hernias, incontinence, pelvic floor prolapse, pelvic instability, flared rib cage, and other core and pelvic floor dysfunction. My goal in the goal in the Restore My Core program is to teach moms how to eliminate this strategy and replace it with better core activation techniques.
2. RELAXED CORE
While we need to be able to let our core muscles relax just like every muscle there is a time and a place for this. A relaxed core is when the Transversus Abdominis is inactive and the belly is allowed to sag down and out. This type of muscle relaxation should only be limited to when we are lying down, resting, or reclined with the full support of a chair or something behind the back. However, if we are sitting in a position that doesn’t provide back support, standing, walking, or moving in any way, then our core muscles need to be slightly engaged in order to support our posture and connect our upper half to the lower half of our body. Again, resting or relaxed core muscles should be supported by a chair, bed, etc. or the rest of your body (hip flexors, lower back, upper back, etc,) will begin to compensate for this lack of support provided by the core muscles.
Another way to think about it is this…you don’t let your legs completely relax when you are standing otherwise you would simply fall to the ground. The same idea applies to our core muscles. When we are sitting or standing upright and we allow our core muscles to relax then all of our organs drop down and droop towards the floor. Improper use of the core, poor posture, pregnancy, or hunched over positions commonly seen postpartum and at a desk can all contribute to a chronically relaxed core. This is something that we also cover in the Restore My Core program and we work towards retraining the core muscles to engage when necessary.
3. ACTIVE CORE
An active core is where we want to be for most of the day. This is when the rib cage is stacked nicely over the pelvis and the body is elongated, but the core isn’t tense. We are then a solid and stable foundation to keep our internal organs in place, our bodies upright, and our spines supported, so that we can move freely and well throughout the day. We need a solid central foundation to keep our internal organs protected and supported to stabilize our spine so we can move deliberately and pain-free.
4. ENGAGED CORE
An engaged core is when the rib cage is stacked directly over the pelvis, and we exhale and draw the lower belly in towards the tailbone while standing tall. This is where we want to be when we are challenged to lift, push, pull, strain, carry, jump, etc. I typically coach my clients to exhale while visualizing zipping up their cores starting at the pubic bone and going all the way up to the sternum like you would zipping up the zipper on a pair of jeans.
It is NOT beneficial to walk around with an engaged core all day long. Engaging and holding the muscles tight beyond what is needed for everyday activity actually overworks the core and causes the entire body to tense up unnecessarily. You always want to be matching the intensity and duration of your exhale as well as your core engagement with the demand of the activity at hand. For example, the amount of core strength needed to lift a 150 lb barbell off the floor versus a bag of groceries out of the car is vastly different. Your muscles including your core muscles have both an active state and an engaged state and it is important to know the difference and when you need to call on each one.
Where to go from here?
The first step to any rehab or restrengthening process is becoming aware of what is really going on in your body. Understanding how your core works and investigating what is going on with it helps to lay the foundation for getting reconnected with your body.
Restore My Core is an 8 week core and pelvic floor restorative exercise program that helps moms learn to reconnect with their cores, heal and core and pelvic floor issues, develop core strength in practical and meaningful ways. Real life demands include carrying a baby all day, wrangling toddlers, working around the house, carpooling the kids to various activities, working long hours in front of a computer, among other things. Your core is very important for all of these real-life demands. If you are struggling to really connect to your core postpartum then click here to learn more about the Restore My Core programs.