When it comes to figuring out how to build a stronger core, most people tend to think it begins and ends with strengthening the abdominal muscles. But there’s much more to the core than that.
Yes, it’s is a multi-layered group of muscles that includes your abs—rectus abdominis (six pack), transverse abdominis, and internal/external obliques. But the hips, pelvis, and lumbar spine, as well the network of muscles, tendons, ligaments, and connective tissue that support them, also comprise the core—and those are only its musculoskeletal components.
Additionally, from our physical therapy perspective, the core is a reflexive, automatic system of spinal decompression and support. It’s a dynamic structure of brain input, breath synchronization, and postural alignment. It should help create visceral (organ) mobilization and pelvic floor support. This is why we teach our clients how to build a mind-body-spirit connection to their core—not just how to strengthen it. Because there’s a big difference between working out your core and having a core that works.
In everyday life, your core should support you with just the right amount of work for the task at hand. For example, if your bones are stacked well—and your three pressure valves that maintain and control your intra-abdominal pressure (which is vital for stabilizing the spine) are also stacked on each other and working well—you shouldn’t have to actively engage your abdominal muscles or your butt muscles when you’re standing to support your spine. This should happen without you thinking about it.
Often though, stress can change how the brain and body speak. When we’re feeling safe and secure, the brain sends signals to our muscles for optimal, efficient movement. But when we’re under stress, feeling disconnected, or anxious, our mind has a harder time delivering clear messages to our muscles to contract properly.
So what do you do? Manage the stress. This is where spirit comes in, and mindfulness practices can help you find joy, meaning, a larger view of yourself. Yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, journaling, and nature walks are just some ways to build greater self-awareness and help you manage the stress, which in turn helps your brain send clearer, less high-tone contract signals to the muscles.
Even when you’re feeling good and emotionally regulated, however, something else that can weaken this core connection is the type of cues used in class. Verbal instructions are meant to help clients learn to move differently, better, and with more ease. It’s for this reason that we use simpler cues less frequently and more analogies. An example of this would be cueing a plank by telling you to expand your body with tension from head to toe like a toiled paper holder, rather than using segmental cues like: “push the floor away,” “squeeze your butt,” “elbow creases forward,” “tuck your chin,” “don’t round your spine.”
If you are trying to help someone move better, studies show that movement-skill acquisition is better with these types of cues. They are relatable, memorable, meaningful, and just make a lot more sense to people. And the more you can do to support a clear core-brain connection—be it by learning to manage stress better, or simplifying the commands you task it with—the stronger your core will truly be.