Core muscles: how to build them

Core muscles! I want core muscles! In my practice I repeatedly hear clients tell me this is what they’re after. While most people understand why they’d want to improve this area, there appears to be huge confusion around exactly how to do this so a little about the structures involved might be useful.

The anatomy

The inner unit (core muscles) is actually comprised of four main muscle groups. These muscles work in unison, to provide a powerful stabilising system for the torso.

Your abdominal cavity is filled with organs and needs to be supported by other structures. Think of this cavity and the supporting structures as a drum. Your diaphragm is the top (lid) of the drum and is situated just under the base of your ribcage. The muscles making up the pelvic floor are situated at the base of your abdominal cavity and form the base of the drum.

Your transversus abdominis (TVA) wraps around your middle, like the sides of the drum. Think of this muscle as your natural corset, tightening around your middle when it contracts. Lastly, multifidus provides stability to each segment of the spine. Imagine a column of glasses stacked one inside the next. Adding sticky tape (the multifidus) to each side of this column would allow the glasses to freely move, but keep them supporting each other and working together as they do so.

Core muscles in co-ordination

Since your waist bends in all directions, your core muscles (the drum) are required to stabilise your torso in all directions. The TVA, multifidus and pelvic floor are on the same neurological loop. When you use one, the others should be working too. So if one of these muscles is not working properly, the core won’t function correctly.

In order to strengthen the core muscles effectively, you should engage the pelvic floor, TVA and multifidus in the same exercise.

The importance of breathing correctly

The first thing you need to check is your breathing pattern. On inhalation, your belly should relax and expand outwards (like a balloon filling). You should see outward expansion of the ribcage, as opposed to an upward lift. If you hold your abdominals tight as you breathe in, then you tend to breathe into your chest, without fully engaging your diaphragm.

The following exercise will help you to both breathe diaphragmatically and strengthen the core as a whole, including the pelvic floor.

4-point kneeling for core breathing

First practice breathing while kneeling on all fours, placing your wrists directly below your shoulders and your knees directly below your hips. Point elbows towards the thighs and fingers forward.

Place a broomstick along your spine. Ensure that the stick has contact with the back of your head, the space between your shoulder blades and your tailbone. The space between your lower back and the stick should be the thickness of your flat hand. Your neck and head should follow the natural line of your spine.

Keep the broomstick parallel to the floor at all times. On your breath in, relax fully through your abdominals and allow your belly button to hang towards the floor. Draw your belly button towards your spine on your breath out. When you can do this comfortably, try holding your belly button in for 10 – 30 seconds.

As you get more proficient at holding your tummy in, try the next stage of the exercise. On your breath out, draw your navel in towards your spine, then slowly take the weight off one hand and then the opposite knee. Do this just enough so you could slip a piece of paper under it. Don’t shift your weight off-centre. This movement tricks your brain into thinking your spine is going to twist. This forces the stabilisers to work, controls the movement and stabilises the spine.

Hold for 10 seconds then alternate. Aim to do 2 – 6 holds each side.

Want to check and see if your core is working? See here. Here’s another exercise for the front of the core.

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