Many of us are familiar with the modern view of the core and core training. The term “core” represents the stabilizing muscles of the body, specifically those which stabilize the spine and pelvis. These include the muscles of inner core such as the diaphragm, pelvic floor and transversus abdominis (TVA), and the muscles of the outer core such as the superficial abdominals and the erector spinae muscles of the back. This anatomical understanding of the core remains unchanged with the deluge of research in recent years, including old research whose importance and relevance is finally coming to be understood. What has changed is our understanding of how to use our core, and how to properly perform core training exercises.
Core Training: Where Traditional Thought Gets It Wrong
Those of us who have studied yoga or Pilates, or who have received professional fitness instruction at some point are likely familiar with the transversus abdominis. The is the magical muscle we engage by drawing our belly-button in towards our spine when we do our exercises. Engaging our TVA supports our body, pressurizes our trunk (a good thing), and protects our low back. Simple enough, right? While it is true that the TVA serves an important function in stabilization and support, the notion of deliberate activation of this muscle via drawing in the navel couldn’t be further off the mark. If this conventional view of the core isn’t true, then why do we hear these same instructions over and over again? It all started with a single Australian study.
In 1998, an Australian researcher (Hodges) found delayed TVA activation in a sample of participants suffering from low back pain. He and his team concluded that an inactive TVA was to blame. EMG studies show drawing in the belly button triggers high levels of TVA activity. Connect the dots and that study tells us that if we draw in during activity, we’ll train-up our cores and eliminate/prevent back pain. However, there are a great many problems not only with this study, but also in the conclusions drawn from it. First, the set up of the study. The study only investigated specific arm movements from a standing position of an extremely small sample size. To extrapolate this to apply to all movements, of all people, all the time is erroneous. Second, and just as important, no other research team has ever been able to reproduce the results of this study. Third, and perhaps most important is the fact that these conclusions show a lack of understanding as to the function of the TVA in situ, as it works with the rest of the body in real life. None the less, the rehabilitation and fitness communities took the ball and ran with it. So if drawing-in isn’t the solution for core function then what is? The answer is shockingly simple; breathing.
The Secret to Core Training: Breathing
The secret to proper core training and core activation lies in our breathing. That said, almost all of us breath incorrectly. Our core muscles are meant to serve primarily as stabilizing muscles. That is to say that their primary role is to provide stability for the motion of other body segments. Training the TVA as a mover instead of a stabilizer will perhaps make it a better mover, but certainly won’t make it any better at stabilizing. The TVA is meant to kick on reflexively and automatically. No thought or preparation required. In order for this to happen, we must breath correctly. Drawing in the belly button not only doesn’t train the TVA properly, it actually makes proper function of the TVA (and the rest of our musculo-skeletal system for that matter) IMPOSSIBLE. Our core stability starts at the diaphragm. As we breath, the movement of the diaphragm works like a piston, pushing down into the abdominal cavity while the muscles of the pelvic floor automatically push up. These movements pressurize the abdominal cavity 360 degrees around. If you get a full, cylindrical expansion of your abdomen, as opposed to chest/shoulder breathing or keeping your belly-button in for example, the whole abdominal wall will contract appropriately and provide the intra-abdominal pressure that gives our trunks much of the stability we need for movement. That’s right. We get better core/abdominal activation by expanding our abdomens via breath than we do by drawing inward and deliberately tightening.
So what is the take-away from all this? If you perform any movement without proper cylindrical expansion and diaphragmatic motion, it can’t be correct. In the gym, in yoga class, at home, at work… we must support our movements properly by breathing using the technique that was hardwired into our DNA before we were even born. We tend to “un-learn” this and other hardwired techniques over time as stress, work, sport and life in general take their collective toll. Get back to the basics and you can truly build your body from the inside out.