Michael Silva MS, PT, CSCS: What is core training?

The following is an article submitted by Michael Silva, owner and president of Foundation Performance, one of New England's top providers of orthopedic physical therapy and performance enhancement services. In this article Silva, a physical therapists, exercise physiologists and certified strength and conditioning specialist, talks about the true meaning of core training.)

What is Core training?

"Core" is one of the most overused and misunderstood terms in health and fitness today.  The term is so overused it has almost lost its legitimacy, so when my patients say, “I am doing core exercises” I tend to be a little skeptical.  The core is not just your abdominals, and core exercises are not just crazy circus tricks on a stability ball.  I would like to quickly review this concept of core.

Anatomically the core is simply your trunk (body without arms and legs).  It is comprised of all the major muscles from the shoulders to the buttocks, specifically the diaphragm, abdominals, pelvic floor muscles, multifidis, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, glutes, and iliopsoas.  Core is not just the muscles, but it is how these muscles function together that truly defines core.

Together in a coordinated sequence of contractions, these core muscles help stabilize the hips, shoulders, and trunk leading to better posture, better strength, and a more stable base for which our arms and legs can work.  A strong core will help you transfer energy to and from your upper and lower body and limit lost energy through unneeded faulty movements.

Core is needed for all athletes; actually it is needed for all people for that matter.  We get questions all the time about why core is important for runners and triathletes.  “Endurance athletes don’t need to train their core, they just need to log in more miles and more laps right?”…Wrong. With running, a strong core in essence will give you a lift, which can lessen the workload to your legs. With swimming, a strong core will keep you streamline and make your pulling and kicking more powerful.  On the bike, as you’re climbing a hill and you are pulling up on the handlebars using your biceps and upper back, this force gets transmitted through your core to your legs and into the pedal for more power to get you up that hill.   Also, during running, your lats and glutes use a coordinated system of tension and contraction to help get more stability in the pelvis and power in the legs; and this can only happen effectively with a strong core to make that transfer of energy possible.  

So now that you know a little about what it is and why the core is so important, you need to know how to train it functionally.   There are lots of core exercises you can learn from a good exercise or rehab professional, but keep in mind there are two areas that are regularly overlooked: pelvic floor and diaphragm.  We will save the pelvic floor discussion for another day, but will give you a simple diaphragmatic breathing lesson to address this much-overlooked area of core.

So, the most basic of core exercises is breathing.  Yeah that’s right, breathing.  Breathing from your diaphragm (or belly breathing) is essential to a well functioning core and the foundation on which all core exercises should be built.  It is the initiating force to all successive muscle contractions in the body.  Many rehabilitation and fitness professionals are finally realizing the importance of the diaphragm.

We have seen poor breathing patterns and a dysfunctional diaphragm lead to problems like lower back pain, weakness, and poor balance to name a few.  The biggest challenge is getting people to realize the importance of breathing.  If you think about it, it is the most unconscious bodily function we have so why should we think about it, right?  Well not so fast, these days our breathing pattern is altered because we are living with our “fight or flight response” active almost every waking minute.  The fight or flight is our body’s response to a danger, threat, or perceived harmful event.  It gets us ready to fight or flee for our survival. 

Now days predatory animals are not chasing us, but our fight or flight will respond to modern day threats in a similar way.  Stress, traffic, deadlines, bills, taxes…are the modern day predators threatening our existence, and our body is responding on a daily bases.  This leads to a stressful breathing pattern that involves using our accessory breathing muscles in the neck more than we should.  Accessory breathing is used to help get more oxygen into the body during physical exertion, but it should not be our normal breathing pattern.  The diaphragm and only the diaphragm (not the neck muscles) is designed to contract and relax 12 or more times per minute for a lifetime, so lets learn how to use it and take the stress off the rest of our body.

To try this, lie on your back with one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.  Close your lips and put your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Inhale through your nose and fill your belly with air, ensure the air is filling your belly and not your chest. You may also notice the curve in your lower back start to lower towards the floor.  Now, exhale through your nose or mouth and assist the exhalation by tightening and drawing in your belly (as if you were buttoning a tight pair of pants).  Your belly will flatten and you should feel your abdominals and lower back contracting slightly.  The arch in your lower back should return. This takes very little effort; about three to five pounds of force is all you need. Master this then work on it in different positions each day; sitting, standing, kneeling… Practice during your day: in your work chair, in your car, waiting in line at Starbucks...  Repetition is key here. 

Utilize your local fitness and rehab professionals to help find and train your unique core deficits.  This should be one of the first priorities in anyone’s strength program.

So breathe on my friends and good luck finding your core.