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Discovering the Core 3 Essential Tips To Improve Core Strength

Have you heard of the core? A lot of people hear about the core, but they wonder what the core is. How do you get a strong core? I’m here to tell you all the features of the core today and what exactly makes it up and how you can start strengthening your core, in three simple and easy steps that honestly, you really can’t mess up!

I’m Dr. Allison Feldt, owner of Body Motion Physical Therapy. And I am a Pelvic Expert Physical Therapist. At Body Motion, we help people heal and strengthen their cores every single day. So let’s dive in. What is the core? This fancy term that you probably have read in magazines (if you still read those) and sometimes you’ll see it on social media. They talk about having a strong core and maybe show you some setup exercises or some planks. But the reality is the core is composed of four separate pieces.

Back muscles

I’m going to use a soda pop can to demonstrate exactly what the core is. The top of the core is composed of this muscle called the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the muscle that helps us breathe. When we take a deep breath in, our lungs fill with air and our diaphragm descends down into our bellies. It contracts down, and when we exhale it recoils up. It’s a super important muscle that we use every second of every day. We use it more aggressively when we’re doing cardio or workouts that really need us to use our respiratory system fast. It’s very important that we train the diaphragm in different directions. You might be more of a chest breather, and so you might not be using your diaphragm as much as you would be if you were directly breathing into your ribs or if you were directly breathing into your belly. 

Now we’re going to go through some techniques to really show you how to use that diaphragm at the very top of the pop can. Let’s go to the front of the core. Pretend the front of the can is the front of the core, which is made up of the transverse abdominus muscles. You also have the internal and external obliques along with the rectus abdominis muscle. These muscles expand during pregnancy especially. If you gain a lot of weight really fast even without pregnancy, you’ll also get a lot of expansion of these muscles. When the muscles lengthen, they get weaker. It’s called the length tension relationship. Longer muscles tend to get weaker, but we can keep working them and contracting them. Working the range of motion of these muscles is so important to help keep them strong if your body is growing really fast.

Let me preface this: you can have a strong core of any size. So with your body size or your BMI, (which is complete BS) you can be any shape, size, and height, and have a strong core. Core strength is not about your shape or size. But when your body size changes quickly, these muscles tend to get weaker. It’s really important that we use the core muscles more efficiently. 

On the back of the can are your buttock muscles, low back muscles, and mid-back muscles that create part of your core. These muscles are called the gluteus medius muscle, the gluteus maximus muscle, and the rotators of the hip. There also are the lats, latissimus dorsi,  that come down and pull our shoulders down and back, and the serratus anterior that helps keep our shoulders protracting and retracting (which means go forward and backward). There also are the lower trapezius muscles, which includes the upper chest muscles, the lower trap muscles help keep those shoulders depressed and also upwardly rotate the shoulder blade. If you’re raising your arm up, the lower trap muscles are responsible for that. Those are the muscles of the back of the soda pop can.

Now let’s go to the pelvic floor. This is the very bottom of the soda pop can. The pelvic floor has three holes: the anus, the vagina, and the urethra. The urethra is where we urinate out of, the vagina for anything penetrative and delivering babies, and the anus is for bowel movements and passing gas. The pelvic floor controls a lot of movement. It has to be able to control all those movements pain-free without issues. So when you have to pee when you don’t want to be peeing, the pelvic floor can hold your pee in. When you don’t want to be farting, it can hold your farts in, and so on and so forth. There’s a lot of functions that happen at the very bottom of the core. 

The bottom of the core has to do many things! It has to be able to contract these muscles, it has to be able to relax the muscles, and it has to be able to overstretch the muscles. We overstretch for things like bowel movements, delivering babies and passing gas. We contract during orgasms, when we’re exercising, and we are even just walking. Contracting our pelvic floor even happens at times that we just want to be in a resting relaxed tone, like when we’re sitting at our desk or when we’re resting on the couch. That’s how the pelvic floor functions. And it integrates with the whole soda pop can analogy. 

The core creates this really amazing pressure, and that’s why we use a soda pop can. It’s an example from a very renowned professor named Dr. Mary Massery. She has some incredible research that uses and demonstrates this pressure that is created from the core. When the core is optimal and strong, it creates this intra-abdominal pressure. When you have this amazing pressure of the soda pop can, nothing can crush the can because the can is hard. If the can is thrown on the ground it might explode, but it can’t be crushed. If the top of the can is opened or popped, then all of a sudden all of that pressure is lost. It’s the pressure inside that creates a really strong core. What’s important in creating that strong core is knowing how to use the pressure. All the muscles work and function together. They help keep your organs inside, and move and ebb and flow inside of the body. It is so important that we have this strong core!

The role of the core is force absorption. When you’re going for a walk or a run and your foot hits the ground, your pelvic floor should automatically absorb some of the ground reaction force. The foot hits the ground and whoosh comes the force, going up to your pelvic floor. Your pelvic floor contracts almost like a spring. When the foot leaves the ground the pelvic floor relaxes. It’s moving and ebbing and flowing in a way similar to a piston. The pelvic floor moves in this piston shock absorption type movement, and it’s moving with the diaphragm. If there are issues in the core or the core is weak, working on it is not just building six-pack abs muscles; it’s creating this 360-degree strength and intra-abdominal pressure relationship. 

This relationship can be affected by things like a back injury. A lot of times the abdominal wall is going to shut down during a back injury and the glutes might shut down. The pelvic floor can really tighten during a back injury. If there is overtightening, we’re not going to get that dynamic piston effect. We have to work on relaxing and opening and releasing the pelvic floor. For many people, this is the key that they’re missing when it comes to core strength. They can be super fit six-pack abs athletes, but not have that ability to fully relax their pelvic floor. And if that ability is missing the joints are going to take a major hit. 

If you’re a high-level athlete, or you want to be or to train like one, definitely get your pelvic floor worked on. That’s going to help develop a new range of motion. That’s going to allow the pelvic floor to open in a different way than you’ve ever experienced and also allow you to breathe deeper because you will have more motion of the pelvic floor. You’re going to get more descent with the diaphragm so it can help your vital capacity (that is the amount that the lungs can hold during respiration). Working on the entire core is important! Especially when there is back pain, or when there is a pregnancy and all of a sudden these abdominal wall muscles stretch out, is when we have an insult to one of the barriers of the core. It’s like popping the top of the can. And obviously pregnancy isn’t a problem at all, the body is just changing. With that change comes a weakness to the intra-abdominal pressure and changing the way the core works.

I’m going to give you four techniques to really truly start retraining your core. The number one thing is to see a Pelvic Expert physical therapist. A Pelvic Expert physical therapist can get your pelvic floor working in a way that you’ve never felt before. It will open up your hips and open up your back. If you feel constantly tight or stiff, a Pelvic Expert PT who can really work the tissue is going to give you a new range of motion in your core, which will allow you to work it much more significantly. If you’re deadlifting or cleaning, you don’t want to have to think about “oh, I need to do a kegel when I’m in this mode.” That’s not a thing. We don’t want to do that! We want to breathe appropriately to help hold our organs in and activate our core and the intra-abdominal pressure. We want these patterns to become more natural. That’s why seeing a Pelvic Expert PT is non-negotiable and super important!

The next tip is doing diaphragmatic breathing aka “the belly breath.” Work your diaphragm in a descending motion, which is going to help train your pelvic floor in an opening motion. Put a hand on the belly and a hand on the chest. Take a nice deep breath. Where did the air go in your body? We want to try to breathe the air into our belly and not have the air go too much into the top hand on the chest. When this happens, you want to see if you can feel your vulva or your anus opening with the inhale. Try feeling the inhale and exhale recoiling, the diaphragm recoiling, and pelvic floor recoiling.

Tip number three is lateral costal breathing. In order to really work the diaphragm not just in the descent motion, but also in a 360-degree motion, I want you to imagine that if your ribcage is an upside-down umbrella. Try to breathe so you open the umbrella of the ribcage. Really imagine the lungs expanding and getting the contraction of the diaphragm. Diaphragm breath into the ribs, exhale. Bring that air all the way to the back of the spine, where the bra line would be. Deep breath in again. Exhale, and let it go. This lateral costal deep breath into the ribcage and working that angle of the diaphragm is a great method to start retraining your core. 

The last tip is a simple transverse abdominis contraction which is learning to activate your lower abdominal muscles. Place your fingertips, right at your hip muscles, you want to feel like your belly button is lifting up and in when you contract this muscle. When you exhale use a “SHHH” sound as it decreases the intra abdominal pressure and allows that muscle, the lower abdominal muscle here to contract even more. When you do that you get a little lift with that muscle and elevate your bladder. There is a ligament that goes from the umbilicus down to the bladder called your rackets ligament and that helps lift the bladder as well. Now when we’re doing this move, we don’t want to be thinking Kegel, we don’t want the pelvic floor driving this movement, we want to be able to isolate this movement with just the lower abdominals with just that transverse abdominis movement.

Really aim to do tip number 2, diaphragmatic breathing every single day. I like five minutes a day. Not only is it beneficial for your pelvic floor, it’s also extremely relaxing as it helps stimulate the vagus nerve. Activating the vagus nerve is going to stimulate the parasympathetic rest and digest system and help avoid that sympathetic system that keeps us on the fight or flight mode. It’s really important that we tap into this diaphragmatic to keep us in that rest and digest phase. And then equally, go to the lateral costal breathing. Do that five minutes a day. And last is going to be engaging your lower abdominal transverse abdominis activation. 

The number one overarching tip of this is to get in with a pelvic floor physical therapist! With a pelvic expert physical therapist you can truly learn to work all the ranges of your pelvic floor, and increase the range which is going to increase your core strength, and increase your ability for your “soda pop can” to not to be crushed!


Allison Feldt

Body Motion Physical Therapy

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