Understanding Your Core: How It Improves Workouts, Posture & Prevents Injury

Understanding Your Core: How It Improves Workouts, Posture & Prevents Injury

There is a lot of confusion out there about what the core is and why it’s important so I’m going to address that and attempt to summarize all the important aspects of it. The core is roughly defined as the body minus the arms and legs. In other words, it’s many of the muscles of your back, obliques, abs, the pelvic floor, and diaphragm. Many individuals think of the core as just the abdominal muscles and that’s a common misconception. The core includes all of the muscles below. It has many functions which I will address below.

The muscles of the core

  1. Back
    1. Erector Spinae muscles - Iliocostalis, Longissimus, Spinalis
    2. Multifidus
    3. Quadratus lumborum
  2. Obliques / Abs
    1. Internal and external obliques
    2. Transversus abdominis
    3. Rectus abdominis
  3. Pelvic Floor
    1. Levator ani
    2. Coccygeus
  4. Diaphragm
  5. Accessory Core Muscles
    1. Latissimus dorsi
    2. Gluteus maximus
    3. Trapezius
    4. Iliopsoas (psoas major + iliacus)

How does the core help my workout and/or make me a better athlete?

The core is an essential part of any movement that the body makes, from standing up and sitting down, to walking, running and jumping, to squatting or pressing, to swinging a golf club or baseball bat. In other words, any full-body functional movement. The reality is that it’s very difficult to detach the core anatomy from the muscle groups you find on the upper and lower extremities. The core stabilizes the pelvic and hip muscles, which stabilize the thigh, knee, calf and ankle. The core stabilizes the shoulder which stabilizes the elbow and everything else in the upper extremity.

As such, any good workout routine or athletic training should include a heavy dose of core exercises. Workouts focused on the core will improve your performance at all levels and types of fitness. This includes working your upper and lower extremity. A strong core can improve your squats and deadlifts as well as many isolation exercises you may do.

For example, a standing dumbbell bicep curl utilizes the core even though you may not realize it. Your core is stabilizing your legs and your back so that your shoulder and elbow joints can curl that weight. You are activating the core even though you don’t feel a burn there, it’s allowing you to increase the work you can do with your upper extremity. Don’t believe me? Go do standing bicep curl and see what happens when you life too much weight; you quickly recruit your back and legs to get that weight up.

It is worth noting that the evidence to support improved athletic performance across the board is insufficient. That is to say it’s been shown to help some exercises, such as running. More research is needed to determine the degree of influence on all aspects of physical activity.

Injury prevention

The importance of core strength and conditioning on injury prevention can not be understated. The primary site of injury prevention is the back. These mucles are recruited whether you are exercising, grocery shopping or just about anything else you can think of. As we discussed above, the core also stabilizes and supports the shoulder joint reducing injury risk there as well as distally at the elbow and wrist. Likewise, it stabilizes the pelvis and hip muscles, reducing risk there and down the rest of the leg. So core strength can reduce injuries across the board, especially the back, but also other joints like shoulders and knees.

Improving Posture

Your posture is determined by many things, mainly the muscles, joints and bones from your hip to your neck. Unsurprisingly, this territory overlaps with the area defined as core. There is evidence to support that a weak core worsen your posture. Conversely, there is also evidence to support that strengthening your core will improve your posture. These muscles will provide axial skeletal support that translates to the upper extremities, ribs and lower extremities that attach to it. Poor posture can also increase your risk for other injuries or make existing ones worse; especially back pain.

Dynamic versus Static Core

This is worth mentioning, although not worth dwelling on. Dynamic core activity occurs during any functional activity, such as playing a sport or walking. Static core activation occurs when the forces are not changing, such as sitting or laying down. Dynamic activity is more dependent on the core than static activity in most cases. However, this distinction is not that important in my opinion. You are activating your core at all times, regardless of whether it is static or dynamic. When you workout, you should be including dynamic (eg, squats) and static (eg, planks) into your routine.

Important in medicine

Aside from maintaining your overall health, the core has some other practical considerations in the world of medicine. One example is weakness in the pelvic floor. This can lead to stress incontinence. The first line treatment for stress incontinence is strengthening of the pelvic floor. During pregnancy and delivery, the core plays an important role. Abdominal musculature is activated during the actual delivery, and the pelvic floor can be weakened leading to the aforementioned stress incontinence.

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