If you want to really see the roots of core strengthening, follow a baby through his or her milestones. The first time they roll over, the core abdominal muscles awaken. They don’t even use their arms or legs….it’s all abs working to move them from the back to the stomach.
Most yoga classes I teach have some component of core strengthening. Recently one of my PTA colleagues and I were having a conversation about this and he said that in his opinion core strengthening seems to be the answer for everything. Really I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I remember when a young patient was evaluated by a PT for ankle strengthening after spraining both ankles doing sports. Although ankle and calf strength was a major component of her home exercise program, the PT also gave her exercises to strengthen her core to avoid future problems.
Why is this? The deep abdominal muscles support the low back, which in turn lend stability and support the pelvis, hips, knees, and even the shoulders and arms. The biggest player in this repertoire is the transverse abdominus muscle (I’ll call it the T.A. for short). The T.A. is in the abdomen and lies under the rectus abdominus (commonly know as the 6-pack). It is a giant, powerful muscle that wraps around the torso and attaches to the vertebrae. Because of this, when the T.A. is strong it stabilizes the spine. This minimizes the possibility of injury occurring when we move our arms and legs (think….walking, sports, even everyday tasks).
Unfortunatley, this muscle does not get strong with the average work-out. This T.A. is like a sleeping giant, it lays around lazily and lets others (i.e. the 6-pack muscle, hamstrings, low back muscles, etc.) do the work . However, with focus and consistency you can awaken this sleeping giant. Then it can keep all your muscles and joints strong and healthy!
So how do you rouse this muscle and use it to bring strength to the low back and other key parts of your body? Try the following exercises to get the T.A. to kick in.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Place your hands on the front of your hip bones, then move your fingers about an inch in, towards the center of the body, and press with slight pressure.
- Now cough or laugh. When you do this you should be able to feel a little wiggle or jump of the T.A. muscle.
- Now that you’ve figured out which muscle to engage, you can start strengthening the T.A.
- Keeping your fingers on the T.A. muscle take an inhale (the belly will expand), then exhale and tighten the muscle by bringing the belly button towards the spine. (You should be able to feel the muscle tight under your fingers)
- Continue to engage the muscle as you take a few breaths. This is by far the hardest part of the exercise. Intuitively we want to hold our breath.
- On an inhale relax the muscle, then repeat this 10 times.
- Once you learn how to engage this muscle with breath, try to lift one foot a few inches off the floor.
- Lower the foot, then lift the other a few inches off the floor.
- Continue to alternate while you’re engaging the T.A. (This is like marching with small steps). This will train the T.A. muscle to to engage with movement.
Consistent training of the T.A. will reward with less incidence of low back pain or injury of the extremities.