Core Talk with Christye

WHAT THE HECK IS CORE CONTROL?

Many clients come to me in search of six-pack abs—but what they really want (and really really need) is a strong and stable core. Here's a fun fact about me: as an athlete and a human being, I need to be able to keep my upper body stable atop my lower body. I need to connect my upper half to my lower half. Perhaps you do, too! This is the true definition of core control. When my core is stable, I can run without hurting my low back, deadlift without slipping a disc, and avoid tight hip flexors and overstretched hamstrings while standing for long periods of time (say, for example, during a Beyonce + Jay-Z concert). When your core is strong, your movements become more efficient, making them safer—which will set up good movement patterns for the rest of your life, helping you avoid nasty stuff like broken hips and hunched-over backs. So now that I’ve made a case for core control vs. six-pack abs, let’s break down what the word “core” actually means.

WHAT IS MY "CORE?"

Old-timey core control.

Old-timey core control.

Your core is SO MUCH MORE than a six-pack! In fact, there are two different types of core muscles: “movers” and “stabilizers.” The “movers” are the muscles that actually cause your body to change position—when your rectus abdominis contracts, your spine flexes towards your pelvis and moves your torso (i.e. a sit-up). These mover core muscles are great for, well, moving, but we tend to emphasize their development more than the less-glam stabilizer core muscles. We love sit-ups, back extensions, side-crunches, and anything that will get us that chiseled six-pack aesthetic. The problem comes when there is an imbalance between the mover and stabilizer muscles.

“Mover” muscles are more fast-twitch than their postural counterparts, and fatigue pretty quickly. “Stabilizer” muscles on the other hand are designed for the long haul—and since their job is not to move the body but instead prevent excess movement of the body, they can go all day without fatiguing. UNLESS they are weak and sad. (Weak muscles are often sad about being weak. Just ask them!)

Who run the world? Beyonce's core muscles.

Who run the world? Beyonce's core muscles.

So here's the meat: there’s a reason that “core,” and not “abs,” is the buzzword du jour among fitness folk. “Core” refers to both the “movers” and the “stabilizers,” and encompasses every muscle along the front AND BACK of your torso. When people say they want “abs,” what they mean is: they want a strong rectus abdominis muscle and a low body-fat percentage. When they want to “work the abs,” they want to do 500 crunches. But here at Volt, we’re all about performance—and in order to be at the top of your game athletically, you’ve GOT to have a strong core (insert fifteen exclamations points). In fact, I couldn’t care less about your dumb six-pack. What I DO care about is the state of your transverse abdominis, one of the most vital “stabilizer” muscles for people who want to be able to keep their upper body stable and controlled on top of their lower body. To put it another way, Beyonce has a super strong transverse abdominis—and so should you!



WHAT IS THE TRANSVERSE ABDOMINIS?

No, it’s not a Harry Potter spell: the transverse abdominis, or TVA, wraps around your torso like a muscle corset—your internal girdle, if you will. It is responsible for keeping your ribs and innards wrapped up and happy, and stabilizing your pelvis and thoracic spine. It is the muscle that pulls the belly in towards the spine, counteracting that nice “burrito belly” look by helping flatten the front of your tummy. Most importantly, the TVA, along with the other muscles of the core, helps keep your spine in a neutral position. To illustrate the importance of a strong TVA and a neutral spine, let’s look at an analogy—with a kid’s plastic toy bucket, the kind you’d take to build a sandcastle on the beach.

Bonus points if you're imagining your analogy bucket with Toy Story characters on it.

Bonus points if you're imagining your analogy bucket with Toy Story characters on it.

The bucket is cylindrical, just like the TVA around your torso. If you were to wrap your hands around the bucket and push evenly, you’d be surprised at how strong that flimsy plastic can be. Its cylindrical shape is what gives it strength. But if you were to poke one finger into the side of the bucket, it would begin to collapse in on itself. This is akin to what happens when we move our spine from a neutral position—we lose stability. Without spinal stability, we risk injury and improper recruitment of muscles by the nervous system (yuck!). We’d also be unable to stand for five hours at a Beyonce + Jay-Z show. Now, I’m not saying my boyfriend SHOULD buy me a ticket for Bey-Z on June 30th—but I WILL say that it would be a great (and scientific) test for my postural core muscles.

So, just to reiterate: six-pack abs DON’T equal a neutral spine. You could be Gerard-Butler-in-300 ripped, and still have low-back pain due to weak stabilizing core muscles. And that’s just sad. Luckily, it’s never too late to start working your TVA! Here’s how.

WHERE IS MY TVA?

Feel for TVA activation on the inside of your hip bones.

Feel for TVA activation on the inside of your hip bones.

To work it, first you gotta find it! Lie on your back, knees bent, feet on the floor. Place your hands just to the inside of your two hip bones. Now try to pull those bones towards each other (using your core muscles - your hands are just there to feel). Another way to think of this movement is to imagine a straight line between your hip bones, and then try to shorten that line. Do you feel the muscles beneath your fingers kick in? You should, because that’s your transverse abdominis doing its job. If you can’t, try standing up, keeping your hands to the inside of your hip bones, and press your tongue against the roof of your mouth (yep—sounds goofy, but it works!) as you exhale forcefully. Practice these movements a few times to get a sense of where your TVA is located on your body, and how it feels when it is activated. If you still can’t feel your TVA working, never fear! Try this simple, and gross-sounding, exercise every day until you feel strong enough to isolate and activate your TVA while lying or standing.

THE CAT-VOMIT EXERCISE

It also kinda feels as if you're bracing yourself to vomit. That's how you know it's working.

It also kinda feels as if you're bracing yourself to vomit. That's how you know it's working.

The grossest-named exercise on the planet, but very effective. Begin in a quadruped position on your hands and knees, knees below hips and hands below shoulders. Exhale all the air out of your lungs. Now, try to bring your belly button as close to your spine as possible. This should look like a cat looks before it…you know. Minus the fur. Hold that belly button-to-spine position for 8-10 seconds, then release. Take a few normal breaths before your next rep. Aim for 10 reps, and work up to 3 sets.

THE TAKEAWAY 

Our friend on the left doesn't look like she'd be very good at cross-country.

Our friend on the left doesn't look like she'd be very good at cross-country.

Want to hear a horror story? Imagine this: you're a competitive cross-country runner with a weak TVA muscle. You can do sit-ups and crunches til the cows come home, but your internal stabilizing core muscles are weak. As a result, these muscles don't support your spine whatsoever when you're walking to class, doing the dishes, or giving Beyonce a standing ovation at the end of her amazing, once-in-a-lifetime performance. Because your spine isn't supported, your posture suffers. Your pelvis tilts forward, tightening your hip flexors and lengthening your hamstrings. Your thoracic spine exaggerates its curve, rolling your shoulders forward into a hunched, "texting" posture. At your next meet, you develop pain in one of your hamstrings, lose your race, and struggle to rehab your muscle for the next 4 weeks, missing the prime of your season. ARE YOU SCARED YET?

Sorry-not-sorry for the dramatics, but our world is too focused on the aesthetics over performance. I want to see a generation of athletes rise up, proclaiming DEATH TO THE SIX-PACK! LONG LIVE THE CORE! and cat-vomiting all over the place. It's a secret, underground, subversive movement. You're welcome to get on board.


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Christye Estes, CSCS, ACSM-CPT, is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. She is a CSCS-certified strength coach, a certified personal trainer through the ACSM, and a Sports Performance Specialist at Volt.
Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye