If you’ve ever been to a weights session with a trainer or a Pilates class, you’ll often hear your instructor/trainer say “activate your core”. Have you ever wondered what exactly is your core muscle and why everyone is so obsessed about getting those muscles working? How exactly do you activate the core? Are those muscles even important?
The core muscles refer to muscles around the trunk and pelvis. It is not one muscle by itself but a whole system of muscles that work in synergy. They can be divided into 2 layers: the deeper layer that is closer to the bones and joints (of the spine, ribs, pelvis) and the outer layer that is closer to the surface of the skin. The deeper layer of muscles work at lower intensity but are consistently working in the background to control smaller and finer movements, and the outer layer of muscles are the power generators that create bigger force and larger range of movements. They are very important muscles given that the trunk is the platform for which your limbs work from.
The deeper and outer layers of muscles seldom work in isolation. They need to work in synergy to ensure well controlled movement in the joints and bones and to generate enough power and in the right direction to allow the body to perform its function. This synergy of deep and outer muscle activation is often disrupted in people with spinal pain or in women who are pregnant or have given birth. Instead of using the deeper system (because of weakness from lack of use, muscle guarding due to pain or overstretching in the case of pregnancy), the outer system becomes dominant, and the deeper system becomes delayed or weakened. If the outer layer of core muscles become dominant and overactive, the trunk becomes very stiff and loses its ability to move effectively. It may become more prone to injury and will affect the ability of the rest of the body to move properly.
So, it is true that the core muscles are important and there is a role for exercising the core. However, it must be done properly to ensure that the deep and the outer layers are working in synergy. If you have back pain and have been told you need to train your core, simply doing sit ups (training the outer core without any attention to the deeper core) is not the right way to retrain your core. If you are already over activating your outer core and your deeper core is not working correctly, sit ups will worsen your symptoms. Also, there are many cases where people can’t activate their muscles correctly because of other reasons (e.g muscle inhibition from being asymmetrical in their trunk), and they can try all sorts of core training, but they will not be able to make any change until they get their trunk symmetrical and moving well.
Your Physiotherapist is the best person to help you train your core properly. By using Realtime Ultrasound Imaging, they can look at the deeper muscles working in relation to the outer. They will also be able to look at your entire musculoskeletal system and analyse the way you move to work out why your core muscles are not working in synergy. Through a thorough assessment, they can help you retrain your core effectively and return to your desired activity or goal!