There’s a lot of misconception as to what your core is. When someone mentions ‘core’, hands up if you immediately thought of your stomach muscles? Especially your six pack ‘abs’ muscles? Your core is actually much more than that.
What is your core and what are the muscles which make it up?
Your core isn’t just one muscle – it’s made up of many different muscles which, in a functional core, work in harmony. If you think your core is just your six pack and oblique muscles, think again! Your core is actually a series of deep and superficial muscles which run from the trunk of your body down to your hips. Think nipples to knees!
Your six pack (rectus abdominis) and oblique muscles are usually the stars of the show as these are the muscles you can most easily see, but there are plenty of others working with them.
Deep core muscles
The deep core muscles are the ones you don’t really see but they’re actually doing most of the work.
They produce lower forces over a longer period of time and also help prepare you for movement.
These are made up of:
Transverse Abdominis (TVA). This is a broad corset-like muscle which runs around your waist. It helps support your lower back and is also responsible for containing and supporting the organs in your abdomen. This is your deepest core muscle.
Pelvic floor. As part of the core, this works with the deep abdominal, spinal muscles and diaphragm to control the pressure within your abdomen and to help with breathing.
Internal obliques. These help with breathing, side and forward bending and rotational movements.
Multifidus. These are responsible for stabilising your spine during lifting and rotational movements.
Quadratus lumborum. This is an abdominal muscles connects your ribs, spine and pelvis and helps with posture.
Diaphragm. This is the muscle which helps you breathe, located just below your lungs.
In some instances, your deep hip rotators and psoas muscle are also considered to make up your deep core.
Superficial core muscles (the ones you can see and feel more easily)
The muscles responsible for bigger movements are your global muscles. Within the core, these are:
Rectus abdominis. These are your six pack muscles and are responsible for that forward ‘crunch’ movement, as well as supporting your internal abdominal organs.
External obliques. These are your side stomach muscles and are responsible for side bending and rotation.
Erector spinae. These are long muscles which run down either side of your spine. Their main function is to help stabilise the spine and help you in movements which arch your back.
Hip muscles. These attach to the spine, pelvis and femur and are responsible for pelvic stabilisation.
You need your core for most movements
Your core is the centre from which provides the stability and strength for larger movements. You can’t make any significant movements without using your core. Picking clothes up from the floor, throwing a ball, crawling on the floor with your pets or children, gardening – all these depend on your core muscles. All the time, your core muscles are being used either for bigger movements such as bending forward, or for stabilising movements such as when you’re walking or sitting. Imagine your body as a car – your core muscles are your shock absorbers. As well as preparing you for movement by anticipating forces to your trunk, they’re also there to help you react to sudden, unexpected movements such as tripping over a pavement block or slipping on ice.
What are your core muscles used for?
Core muscles are used for big movements such as helping you generate power when you’re boxing, as well as stability for when you need to balance, such as doing a tree pose in yoga or leg lifts in barre. They also help provide stability for your spine and pelvis when doing everyday movements which transfer load, such as carrying heavy bags, passing a baby to a friend and also running.
Your deep core muscles also activate in preparation for movement, and if you should stumble, they’ll work to keep you from falling.
Your abdominal muscles during pregnancy and after
During pregnancy, the abdominal fascia down your midline stretches and loses tension to accommodate your growing baby. As a result, your six pack muscles move away from each other. This is called diastasis recti, also known as stomach muscle separation. This is a slightly deceptive term, as it suggests these muscles were ‘stuck’ together to begin with – the fact is that you rarely know what the starting point for these muscles are before you get pregnant. So for some of you, you might already have a small gap – which is perfectly normal.
It’s actually not considered a diastasis recti unless the six pack muscles are more than 2 fingers width apart, and even then, that’s quite an outdated way of thinking. Now, when you have a check, they will also assess several other factors to determine the severity as it’s not all about the gap.
What to do if you think you’ve got diastasis recti?
The first thing is not to panic!
Diastasis recti is common especially for many women who reach full term (and did you know it’s not just mums who get this – weight lifters and even babies get this too!) Having a diastasis doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have to stop doing certain exercises, but there are several things you can do to help support this area as you rebuild strength and function. For example, strengthening your transverse abdominis, breathing out when doing activities which can increase your internal pressure such as lifting your baby from the floor or straining when you poo, and also improving posture.