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  A strong core for a strong life

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Anatomy Help - Core Muscles (link)

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Strong Core. Strong Life.

Welcome to Module 2, Lesson 1. In this lesson we’re going to talk about a new approach to core training.

Core training is all the buzz these days. Most people know they need a strong core, but not a lot people know what that really means. Do you just need to do more crunches?


The good news is that more trainers and programs are invested in helping people discover their core muscles—which is really important and goes way beyond getting that coveted six-pack.

So what do I mean by “core”?

When I talk about core muscles, I’m thinking of several different muscles that serve as natural stabilizers for complex movement. When these muscles are doing their job, movement is easy and supported.

People who have a strong core make complex movement seem almost effortless.

On the other hand, those who don’t access or utilize their core muscles appropriately tend to fall into one of two camps.

The first camp is what I call the “Flaccid and whatever” group. These are people who seem lackluster in their movement, and it often translates into their life... or, you know, “whatever.”

Instead of stabilizing and moving from core these folks just sort of drag on in a pool of blob-life motion.

The other camp is the rigid, tense, over-compensating people of the world.

Instead of passively giving up because they have no core strength, these people try to use other non-core muscles to do the work. They’ll hold themselves together by their shoulders, ribs, butt, or legs. These are determined folks who want to be effective, but are wasting SO much energy—and usually dealing with a lot of pain—by not utilizing their core muscles.

What about you?

Do you feel like you move from a supportive core? Does movement feel easy and coordinated? Do you feel stabile, balanced, and moveable in your day-to-day life? If so, awesome! The work we’re going to do here will enhance and compliment what you already know.

But maybe you find yourself in one of the other camps.

Do you feel like you’re always falling apart OR like you’re bound and determined to keep moving despite constant tension and pain? Either way, the information I’m sharing in this and the next few lessons will help you.

The Core Muscles

Your core muscles include your:

  • Muscles that surround and stabilize the spine
  • Deep abdominal muscles
  • Pelvic floor, and other connecting muscles Here’s a nice rule of thumb for you: The deeper the muscle is the more vital of a role it tends to play in core strength. That’s why crunches and focusing on the more surface “six-pack” muscles aren’t generally the best approach in core training. Some people may find detailed anatomical information useful. If that’s you I’ve included some links and resources to help give you that support below. For those of you whose heads start to spin just thinking about anatomy I’m going to keep things super simple. The exercises that follow will help you mentally and physically locate the most important muscles and I’ll discuss them as we get there.

Why is core strength important?

Not sure why you should care about core strength? Consider what core support can offer you:

  • Core support improves your balance and stability. This is especially important for you as you age.
  • A strong core that is connected to your entire body makes all movement easier and fuller. Whether you are a soccer player, a dancer, a mom, or just want to feel alive in your body—you will be amazed at how much more grace, coordination, and ease you will find—even in your daily tasks.
  • Core strengthening will improve your posture and make you look thinner! Who doesn’t want that?
  • Your core provides a protective shield for your spinal cord and internal organs. It also keeps your entire system better aligned and functioning properly, improving digestion and enhancing your circulatory system.
  • Core training can be done without any equipment, memberships, or huge time commitments. Ten minutes a day will do wonders.

Here’s the really cool thing about core training: The deep core muscles are inherently really strong. Because they are so close to your skeletal frame, they are super efficient and do their job really well.

So why do so many people struggle to maintain core strength?

Because they have forgotten how to access and use their core muscles.

Bad habits can disengage the core muscles. Things like too much sitting while tucking your pelvis or hiking the ribs up to feel taller tend to switch off your core connection. When that happens your body starts relying on other muscles to compensate for the disconnection.

Over time those bad habits become almost invisible to your senses. Your brain needs a major wake-up to reconnect through mindful retraining.

Ironically, some fitness trends can also do damage to your natural core strength.

The ever-popular “ab crunch”—while not necessarily an evil exercise in and of itself if done properly—focuses on more surface abdominal muscles in isolation which neglects your deeper core muscles. And if you’re not doing them right they can cause some serious issues.

What most people need when it comes to core training it not just to strengthen their deep core muscles. They need to relearn (or re-pattern) how to feel them in action.

You need to wake up those sleepy, forgotten muscles!

That’s why the first step to core training isn’t to increase reps or learn fancy exercises. The first step is about remembering those natural patterns of the body and re-wiring the brain to rely on core strength as the initiator of all movement.

Core Strengthening Exercises

First up is to locate and strengthen the Transverse Abdominis... or TA for short.

The TA is like a natural girdle. It’s the deepest of all your abdominal muscles and wraps around like a corset.

Most muscles have specific roles in terms of joint action. For example your biceps flex your arm. Your quadriceps extends the knee, etc.

The Transverse Abdominis, however, isn’t about joint action. Its primary role is spinal stabilization.

Because traditional ab work focuses so much on the rectus abdominis—or “six pack” muscles—most people have a hard time locating, feeling, and using their TA.

Combine that disconnection with a tendency toward “tucking” the pelvis under while doing ab work, one of the best things you can do in core training is to locate and feel your TA working.

Here is a simple exercise to help with that:


Exercise: Deep Breathing TA

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet planted on the floor. Place one hand on your belly. Slide the other hand underneath your lumbar spine. (There should be a natural curve there—do not “flatten your spine” against the floor).

For this experience you will be doing some deep breathing. As you breathe in, allow your belly to gently rise as the diaphragm pulls down to bring in oxygen. As you exhale feel the front side of your belly pull inward, creating a soft hollowing sensation.

As the belly pulls inward don’t let the pressure on the hand under you back change. In other words, you want to feel an expansion and release of your muscles without changing the skeletal position of your spine as you breathe. You want to engage the TA without tucking the pelvis or flattening the spine.

Keep breathing in and out, feeling your musculature change but keeping your spine stable.

That’s the whole exercise. It’s simple, but not necessarily easy. Spend a few minutes each day to practice feeling that slight tugging and hollowing sensation without disrupting your spine. It’s essential to training your core.

Exercise: Hang and Hollow

The psoas (or iliopsoas) is another deep core muscle that has several functions. Locating and engaging the psoas is important for core support.

This exercise is subtle and can be a bit tricky for beginners. Give it a try and don’t stress too much about doing it “right.” The main purpose here is to engage and feel the sensation of your psoas muscle and its connection to your breath patterning.

Come onto your elbows and knees. Make sure your knees are in line with your hips and your elbows in line with your shoulders. Release your head down and allow the trunk of the body to simply hang.

As you allow your body to drip down towards your head, take a few quick deep breaths while making a “ha ha ha” sound—making sure you are breathing out on the “ha.” As the diaphragm engages, this position allows you to feel the subtle hollowing sensation of the psoas muscle. The sensation will be “deep and low” close to the pubic bone—it will feel like the muscle is scooping back and up toward the spine.

This sensation is a great way to feel the power and connection of your core muscles to your legs and spine. It may take a few tries before you really feel that tug of the muscle, so don’t worry if you don’t sense it right away.


The role of proprioception in core strength:

Proprioception is one of the human senses. Rather than sensing external reality through sight or sound, proprioception is the sense of the orientation of one’s limbs in space.

This is distinct from the sense of balance, which comes from the fluids in the inner ear. Proprioception is what police officers test when they pull someone over for suspected drunkenness. Without proprioception, we’d need to consciously watch our feet to make sure that we stay upright while walking.

Both stability balls and balance discs can help train your core by creating unstable environments. Your muscles learn how to adapt to the tiny shifts created by the unstable ground. Your TA and other deep trunk muscles get a chance to really shine as they commit to keeping you oriented in space.


Exercise: Stability Ball & Balance Disc

There are a lot of things you can do on a stability ball to help improve your core support. Sitting on a ball at the desk, doing your normal “ab” work, or just improvising through large-range movement can help improve your stability.

Try spending at least five minutes a day just rolling, bouncing, and moving on the ball. Try to move in new and creative ways.

These balance discs are great to have at home. You can also use a pillow for a similar experience. For beginners I’d recommend just standing on it. As your core becomes better engaged you can try balancing on one leg, closing your eyes, bending your knees, or other full body motions.

Again, spend 5 – 10 minutes a day working on your proprioception. You’ll be amazed at how a few minutes each day can greatly improve your balance over a period of just two weeks.

If you remember nothing else, remember this:

As you move through these experiences keep in mind that these are NOT your typical “do it until it hurts” or “you should be dripping with sweat” type exercises.

Remember, there is a reason for this:

Your core muscles are inherently strong.

Repeat that sentence until you believe it.

The muscles that are designed for core support are attached in the most optimal locations in your body. They are deep to the core and they are close to the joints. In other words: They are part of a sophisticated lever system that when utilized properly require very little effort to do a lot of work.

The body is inherently strong. And when we focus on the deeper core muscles you will be amazed at how more coordinated you will feel with not a lot of work.

Yay, right?

You will also improve your posture and get a more “toned” looking body because you are working with nature instead of against it.

And this is why I love movement training. It’s really another chance to learn about life. When we let go of surface worries, get to the deeper matters of life, and live by core values we find that this life doesn’t have to be as complicated as some people make it.

Happy thoughts right there.

Well, that’s it for today.

I hope you take some time to thoughtfully and mindfully move through the movement experiences. Don’t be surprised if you feel a bit frustrated by the simplicity of them—especially if you can’t yet feel what you think you should be feeling. It takes time to tune into those forgotten muscles. The more time you spend and the more opportunities you give you brain to retrain the easier it will get. Promise.

See you next time as we talk about the missing piece in core training.