Your Core is not your Abs
Written by Beth Drayer on March 6th 2015
There is a common misunderstanding about “Core” workouts today.
Sit ups, crunches, leg lifts etc. are abdominal workouts that will give you a stronger rectus abdominis muscle and stronger, tighter hip flexors. If you add in some back and hip extensions then you will have strong back muscles.
But there is a difference between core strength and core stability. And without core stability, core strength is useless.
Since everything in your body is connected, your core muscles consist of all of your muscles. The concept of “The Core” though, is having a solid base to allow movement in your body to occur. So for argument sake here, your core is your shoulders to your hips and are the muscles of your back/neck, shoulder stabilizers, chest, hips and abdominals. In order to make your core stronger you need to work these muscles and have them work together.
There is a collaboration that occurs between these muscles that when contracted appropriately, that keeps your body correctly aligned and allows for correct movement patterns that decrease injury risk at all joints! This is core stability. Once you have core stability then you can work on core strength.
When your pelvis is kept in a neutral position, risk of low back pain is minimal. The problem is that so much of our lives are spent sitting. This tends to leave your hip flexors tight. When your hip flexors remain tight it causes the muscles in your lower back to shorten and tighten as well. This also causes an increased curve in your lower back (increased lordodic curve). This can lead to several different causes of pain.
You can have Sciatic symptoms (pain that radiates into your thigh) due to either increased tightness of you Piriformis muscles (large muscle that runs across your entire butt at an angle from your tailbone to the outside of your hip) or the narrowing of the tunnel that your nerve runs out of your spine due the increased curve of your low back.
This increased curve can also cause pain due to the spinous processes (pointy part of the vertebrae that stick out and overlap on the posterior side) hitting each other which can eventually turn into a stress fracture (a weakening or breaking of the bone due to repetitive force).
The shortening/tightening of your hip flexors places your pelvis into an anterior (forward) tilt. This then causes your lower back muscles that attach your pelvis to the rib cage to shorten and go into spasm also causing low back pain.
Now you may be wondering, “You said that everything in my core is connected. How does this tightness in my hips and lower body really affect my upper body/shoulders?” — Excellent question!
When there is an increased lordotic curve there is usually a related kyphotic curve (curve in your upper back) this is your typical hunched shoulder appearance. This increased curve is also related with weakened and lengthen stabilizing shoulder girdle muscles along with very tight chest muscles. This causes an unstable shoulder and an increased risk of shoulder impingement injuries. 
So what does this mean for you?…..

Stop doing sit ups! Your “Ab” muscle (rectus abdominis) connects the lower ribs to your pelvis; every time you contract this muscle it causes a forward tilt of the pelvis and usually (due to weakness of the rectus abdominis) a contraction of the hip flexors, again causing more tightness in the anterior hips! The same occurs when you do crunches and leg lifts and so on.
What you should be doing are exercises that control the stability of your back, hips and shoulders.
First gaining core stability, finding your neutral spine and being able to hold and control that position with your core stabilizers; the Transverse Abdominus, pelvic floor muscle, Diaphragm and the small multifidus muscles of the spine. To get these working correctly; lie on your back with your knees bent, and take a deep breath in, your belly should rise. Exhale and your belly should fall.
Now find the pointy parts on the front of your hips, take two fingers and move about one third of the way between that part of your pelvis (it’s called your anterior superior iliac spine) and your belly button, and press in so you can feel the layer of muscle. As you exhale, try to pull your belly button toward your spine (this is for your TA). If you can, at the same time contract the muscle you would use to stop yourself from peeing midstream (do this with an empty bladder). Now hold this contraction for a count of 10 while still breathing.
Once you get this exercise done correctly and can consistently hold this contraction, you can move on to exercises such as:
Planks (hands directly below your shoulders, heels squeezed together, glutes and quads contracted and shoulder blades pulled down)
Bridges (knees bent and feet flat on the floor, neutral spine, belly button pulled toward your spine, using your glutes lift your butt off the floor moving from your hips to your shoulders as one unit like a brick)
WTI’s (scapula strengthening exercises performed laying face down, arms in either a W, T, or I position then squeeze your shoulder blades together).
Doing these exercises on a daily basis will quickly improve your core stability and strength by placing you in a more functional and injury free position.
If you are looking for a complete stretching and strengthening program that will relieve your back pain, thenclick here to check out Shotgun Back Relief.
Beth Drayer MS, ATC, CSCS, CES

Beth Drayer MS, ATC, CSCS, CES

Beth Drayer is a Certified Athletic Trainer, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Corrective Exercise Specialist, Manual Therapist, and Holistic Health Coach. I have over 21 years of experience working with everyone from Middle School, High School, College, and elite athletes to the elderly, helping them reduce their pain and getting them to move better and feel better. This includes injury recovery to general wellness.
If you're interested in learning more on how you can work with me to move better and feel better please contact me today and set up a consultation call!
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