Your “Core-4” – A Foundation for Wellbeing

A strong core is about a lot more than nice abs

The term “core” has been increasing in popularity over the past decade, especially with the growing popularity of such exercise regimes as Pilates and yoga, and the use of stability equipment like the “stability ball,” BOSU, balance boards, etc. Many fitness experts agree that your core is, in fact, the foundation of your entire body. You rely on it each and every day as you move, as well as while you are sedentary, so it only makes sense that when you are exercising, you should ensure that core training is a regular part of your routine. While it’s important to exercise for strength, health and longevity, without a strong core, you cannot achieve overall balance.

So what is your “core?”

Most people think of their core as synonymous with their abs – but in truth, the abs are only one part of it. Your core actually consists of 4 interconnected muscle groups: your transversus abdominis, your multifidus, your diaphragm, and your pelvic floor. I call this the “Core-4.” All 4 of these core muscles work together to provide strength and create balance and stability. This system (if working optimally) creates a synergy whereby they all function for maximal benefit. If one of these muscles isn’t working at peak performance, or becomes “locked,” it will begin to inhibit the other areas from working at their best. In this case, you would be left with a “core dysfunction” that can result in a host of other issues.

Optimal core function becomes a challenge for many mothers postpartum, and many such Core-4 related conditions are left undiagnosed and untreated until they begin to affect the quality of daily living. However, both women and men can suffer from the aches and pains of a dysfunctional core well past the childbearing years, yet rarely address it. It has become a silent epidemic of sorts that many have reconciled themselves to living with – but this doesn’t have to be so.

Here are just a couple of the conditions resulting from core dysfunction that are a lot more common than you might think.

Diastasis Rectus Abdominis – separation of the rectus abdominis

Diastasis Rectus Abdomi affects approximately 80% of pregnant woman but is not caused by pregnancy alone; so-called “beer bellies” and doing abdominal exercises incorrectly (i.e. crunches, v-sits, etc.) can also be to blame. DRA is caused by any continuous, forward, forceful pressure on the recti muscles and is usually the cause of that dreaded “mummy tummy” that just doesn’t seem to go away no matter what you do. As unflattering as it may sound, it’s a term that many moms can relate to.

When the rectus abdominis (the outermost abdominal muscles) separate, your back has to work harder to compensate for the lack of support out front and your organs are exposed – this is where the protruding belly comes from – often leading to chronic back pain, or in more severe cases, a hernia. Training the transverse properly from the inside out can help to bring the recti muscles back together, restore strength and reduce back pain.

Pelvic Floor Dysfunction

Now, this is a lot more open-ended. Your pelvic floor muscles (PFM) support not only your uterus and bladder, but your pelvis and spine too! They have the considerable task of making sure that everything is aligned properly. Add pregnancy, injury, or excessive weight gain and you could be up for some not-so-fun pelvic floor related problems to deal with. Because the PFM are anticipatory muscles, incontinence and gas are a common side effect if that connection is lost. Prolapse, hip pain, back pain, and pain during intercourse can also be a result of weak or dysfunctional PFM.

Training your pelvic floor with various types of Kegel exercises can help to reverse these conditions and, if practiced regularly, can even help to avoid them in the first place. If you think you may be suffering from any of the above conditions, you may want to seek the help of a pelvic floor physiotherapist who can treat you accordingly. So you might be wondering what role the diaphragm plays in all this. Well, as they say in the yoga world: it all begins with the breath. Diaphragmatic breathing not only allows you to breathe more deeply, it also sets up the other parts of your core to move in the way that nature intended.

Once you add transverse and pelvic floor muscles into the mix, you are on a roll as these two contract with one another. If you do not breathe effectively and/or are suffering from either a diastasis or pelvic floor dysfunction, this will lessen your amount of contraction, or “strength,” as one muscle will overcompensate for the other. This can put you further out of alignment and balance. Remember, many believe that your core is the foundation of your musculo-skeletal system, so treating it wisely will benefit you for the long haul. A healthy core creates balance, strength and confidence so that you can go through your days functioning without pain, discomfort or embarrassment. In the end, when training your core, ditch the old-school “crunches,” and instead do things that will not only promote strength, but create stability at the same time. Here are some great Core-4 balanced exercises that you can try.

Front loaded planks

These are fantastic for recruiting your core muscles without overloading your spine. (Note: these are not recommended if you have a diastasis with weak connective tissue.)

Lateral movements

Side planks and lateral bends will also help to strengthen your abdominals without straining your recti muscles forward.

Core breath

By recruiting your diaphragm, pelvic floor, and transverse you will help to re-pattern the breath to achieve what Mother Nature intended.

Bridges

This is particularly great postpartum as you use your glutes, which in turn contract your pelvic floor. The inversion encourages the uterine organs to return to their original position.

Most simply, and possibly my best piece of advice:

Pregnant or not, don’t allow your belly to “hang out” for a free ride. You need to regularly engage those muscles that gravity is trying to pull forwards…but remember to breathe! Adjusting your life and workout to a more well-rounded routine of isometrics incorporating the Core-4 will give you the foundation you need to live your life free from uncomfortable and inconvenient core dysfunction. Now that sounds good, doesn’t it?