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How to ACTUALLY strengthen your core

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

I'm going to go ahead and say outright that 'core strength' is one of the most misunderstood concepts in physical medicine and rehabilitation. You have the Chris Hemsworth's (I do like Thor) all over the world starting apps and core strengthening programs that (unless you know what you're doing) have the potential to cause considerable damage. Before we delve into this misunderstood topic, I just wanted to bust a few myths.


Myth #1: your core is your stomach muscles

Myth #2: you get a strong core doing planks and sit ups

Myth #3: A strong core will give you a 6 pack


So, as with most things when you start to get into the science stuff it can start to sound a bit boring but at the same time science is science and physio nerds love it. So way back when (20-30 years back), there were some very innovative physios that termed the 'core' as a bit like a can within your torso. This being composed of your diaphragm (breathing), deep abdominal muscles and pelvic floor. Essentially, these guys make a closed pressure system that maintains what we call intra-abdominal pressure – without this you wouldn't be able to breathe, digest your food or simply live.




So, the researchers – one of which being Paul Hodges realised that if someone had a weakness or problem in this 'can' then it can result in poor spinal stability and issues will result. They taught people really tiny cues using an ultrasound and had a good success rate and it was ground breaking research. Great job. Unfortunately, there is always a huge disparity between the academic world and real world. Following all of this great research, there was a serious game of worldly Chinese whispers which led to physios, chiros, Pilates and yoga instructors telling people to tighten their stomach whenever they move. This may not seem like a problem at first – but we're getting to this as it has become the root cause of a lot of injuries. See, for a well balanced core, you need to have balance between your diaphragm and thorax (top of the can), deep abdominal (middle of the can) and pelvic floor (bottom of the can).


When you tighten your stomach exercising, 99.99999999% of the time (unless you've learned via ultrasound) it's your oblique muscles working. The obliques attach way up into the ribs so when your obliques get tight, your thorax gets tight. When your thorax gets tight, you have a downward stress into intra-abdominal pressure and the result is less stabilization through your pelvic floor and deep abdominals. This was researched by Dr. LJ Lee who completed her PhD on biomechanics around the thorax and how it affects the rest of the body. This is often why people have persistent problems.

Obviously, it's not as cut and dry as this -there are countless other things that influence core strength – here's an easy way to understand it.



Essentially, there's 4 pillars to core strength and a strong body needs to have balance between all of these.





So, if you're having trouble strengthening your core it's likely to do with one of these pillars. Keep in mind that if there is an issue with one aspect it will affect all of the others, let me give you some examples:


Things that can impair thoracic mobility:

Whiplash or car accident

Shoulder dislocation or injury

Phrenic nerve injury (C3,4,5)

Posture

Poor training patterns

Anxiety


Things that can impair internal pressure:

Abdominal or thoracic surgery

Cesarean section

Appendix surgery or other keyhole surgery

Inflammatory Bowell Syndrome or dietary causes

Lumbar (lower) spine injury


Things that can affect external muscle power:

Any surgery to torso

Poor training habits

Postural habits

Rectus diastasis surgery

Thoracotomy or thoracic surgery

Nerve injury that affects abdominal muscles

Hernia surgery


Things that can affect pelvic control:

Child birth

Pelvic floor tearing

coccyx injury Hip

knee or foot injury

Pelvic prolapse

Bladder conditions

Lower intestinal issues




So I hope you can see - just because you have a stiff torso, it might be because you have a weak pelvic floor or didn't properly rehab your ACL injury. Poor stability around your pelvis could be from an old shoulder dislocation or neck injury. There is generally no black and white cause/effect and everyone is different. In saying this, there are always clues as to how to strengthen stability and resilience in your body – these often come from your past. How has your body been compensating around whatever has happened to you? What are the drivers in your story that might be leading to poor core strength?


The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Taking charge of your health means taking on a lot of responsibility but the benefits are literally endless. Who knows, you might even get that 6 pack. Learn more.


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