understanding your core: Part II
Dear mummas, there is a lot to know about pregnancy, delivery and taking care of small humans, but THIS is the most important thing you'll ever need to know.
THIS IS CORE ENGAGEMENT.
I see faaaaar too many struggling cores in my office, regardless of shape, size and tone. What does this mean? Well, it means that most of us have a hard time contracting our core muscles WELL. Our sedentary, flat-tummy culture (suck-it-in mirror selfies!) and mixed messages about what the core is and how it should work has led to so much of this confusion and difficulty. THIS IS NOT OKAY considering the importance of this area to our overall health and wellness.
Props for trying at yoga and in those last few abs minutes of your exercise class, but it's so frequently NOT. QUITE. RIGHT. Backs are flattening, pelvises (pelvi?) are tucking, stomachs are hollowing or bulging, breath is held. And then there are the mummas-to-be who used to know how to use their core muscles, but are totally lost once the baby belly bumps out - suddenly it's unchartered territory. Or new mummas who head straight to their high-intensity boot-camp style group exercise class (go!go!go!push!push!push!) that is an injury time-bomb waiting to happen. There are the mummas hauling around 25 pound fussy babes on one hip all day long (me!) - hip popped, pelvis tipped, belly bulging, spines over-arcing, shoulders sagging (okay, not me).
Not a core awake in sight, mummas.
Sound familiar? My lovely lady friends, pregnant or not, today is all about HOW to contract your core muscles properly. All in the name of good alignment, optimal movement, and really, overall health.
This needs to happen.
Before getting started:
In case you missed it, you should read THE CORE OF IT: PART I before diving in any further.
Here, "the core" refers to the abdominal area. Although your true core is your entire trunk, the abdominal area is what usually needs the most help - along with the pelvic floor which requires a whole page (or twenty) to itself. I will mention the pelvic floor a little bit here, because it works along with the abdominal core muscles, but you can read more about pelvic health over here, or follow the link when you get to the bottom of this page.
HEALTHY MUMMA'S RULES of ENGAGEMENt:
1. NO sucking-in, NO hollowing.
This is the biggest mistake I see. Our flat-tummy, suck-it-in society begs for it! This is also fuelled by so many practitioners/personal trainers/fitness instructors/You Tube videos/etc. that teach these mistakes. We have all heard the "pull belly button to spine" mantra, which has most people trying to do, well, just that. The thing is is that this usually leads to hollowing or sucking-in.
Hollowing your belly, or attempting to for the sake of core engagement, means that you are displacing and putting tension on your gut organs (not good), reducing your breathing function (not good), and likely tucking your pelvis and flattening your spine (see below - also not good). Hollowing may produce equal or better contraction of the transverse abdominis (your deepest core muscle), but research has shown that hollowing INHIBITS THE OBLIQUES and consequently does not protect our spines like we'd like to happen. Hollowing or sucking-in is a FLAWED AND DATED way of engaging your core. So don't do it.
2. NO tilting or flexing.
Your pelvis should not tilt, unless small adjustments to optimize your alignment are needed, and obviously if you are doing an activity or sport that requires pelvic movement, like tennis, hula hoop or the cha cha. Your spine should not flex or extend, it should STAY NEUTRAL, maintaining the natural S-curve. Your core's job is to protect and preserve the natural curves of the spine. Plain and simple.
3. Both diaphragms are free to move.
This is probably the most important rule for us mummas, but the least talked about. Remember that your core includes the large thoracic/breathing diaphragm, plus your PELVIC DIAPHRAGM (aka the pelvic floor). It is important that these diaphragms are free to move. They shouldn't be kept restricted, constantly contracted (as we often see with the pelvic floor) or limited from expressing their true, full contract/relax motion. If you hold one or both of these tight or limit their true expression, you could run into all sorts of issues: stress incontinence, aches and pains, asthma, digestive problems, etc.
Okay, so What should you do?
BRACE, BRACE, BABY!
Ya, I just did that.
When your core muscles contract, they should BRACE. It is a TENSING. Not just of one muscle, but of ALL OF THE MUSCLES of your core - front, back and sides. Your lower belly may flatten slightly (not a hollow!), but there is no movement of your spine or pelvis; it is an isometric contraction. This bracing will get your rectus abdominis (abs), your internal and external obliques and your transverse abdominis all fired up at once, which optimizes spinal stability - THIS IS WHAT YOU WANT dear mumma.
There is some debate "out there" over placing too much emphasis on stability and bracing when it comes to the core, vs training it more dynamically (flexing, extending, rotating, etc). I think both training methods are totally valid (so long as the exercises are spine safe), but there is a time for isometric bracing and a time dynamic training. When it comes to pregnancy and postpartum core work, I'd have to say I lean WAY towards the stability side of things. Considering most of us have a hard time just connecting to our cores, it would be careless to jump ahead to dynamic work without establishing a solid foundation through bracing work. I hope this makes sense.
This bracing is also known as SUPER STIFFNESS, a term coined by the world's leading spine researcher out of the University of Waterloo, Dr. Stuart McGill (read more about spinal stabilization and abdominal bracing). McGill's work is my bible for spine and core guidance.
let's do it. hERE iS THE RIGHT WAY TO ENGAGE YOUR CORE.
The best way to find your core muscles is to lie down (easy, right?). This way, all of your muscles are off, and you can focus on turning on just the core ones.
Lie on your back on a firm surface with a pillow or two under your knees to relax your spine and hips.
Use your BREATH to relax (on your inhalation) and contract (on your exhalation) your core muscles. Try it.
DEEPLY THROUGH YOUR NOSE, ALLOWING YOUR BELLY AND RIBS TO EXPAND FREELY.
SLOWLY, CONTRACTING YOUR DEEP CORE MUSCLES -
TENSING YOUR ENTIRE ABDOMINAL AREA.
Remember the rules above: no hollowing, no bulging, no spine flattening, no pelvic tilting.
Here are a few cues that may help you achieve an ideal contraction:
- imagine you're about to be PUNCHED IN THE GUT (make sure you don't flex forward at all), or even better, lie on the floor and have your small child come at you WWF style - see what you instinctively do with your belly
- stand/sit TALL, think of lengthening your spine (no hollowing & don't let your lower ribs flare up with this one)
- imagine both sides of your core (abdominal area) coming together like a zipper or cinching closed like a women's corset from 1900 (no hollowing!)
- a small cough might also help you feel what bracing should feel like
Should I be thinking about my core all day long?
The Lady Mary Crawley certainly does, but most people don't. Our poor posture and high incidence of lower back pain screams that we don't. It says most of us don't have a clue about our cores. If you are one of the bazillion people who tend to slouch, get sucked into your screens and generally carry yourself poorly, moving inefficiently, then YES, YOU SHOULD BE VERY AWARE OF YOUR CORE. ALL. DAY. LONG. It may seem like a lot of work at first, but trust that your conscious effort will eventually become unconscious habit. And by being aware of it alldaylong you will develop wicked strength far more quickly!
Okay, so does this mean that I have to brace HARD all day?
No! Your degree of core engagement should be directly related to the forces and loads that are challenging it. Meaning, your core engagement when you are sitting eating dinner is totally different than the degree of engagement needed when you lift groceries into the car, or carry the tenth load of laundry up the stairs, or wrestle your screaming 2 year old out of the toy store.
Remember, your core must be able to GENERATE, DAMPEN, ABSORB and TRANSMIT forces when needed. If you carry yourself too rigidly, your trunk muscles will not be able to do these tasks well, which will piss off your joints, tissues, diaphragms and internal organs, likely leading to injury.
Be (CORE) engaged & aware.
And when you're presented with an increased load (laundry! baby! groceries! yoga class!), bring more awareness/engagement to your core for the sake of proper alignment. This may all seem very methodical at first, but trust that, like anything, this will become most automatic with diligence and practice.
I got it. But how should I challenge my core muscles?
There are a bajillion ways of working your core. Just keep the rules of engagement (above) in mind. And know that you must be VERY comfortable with a basic, deep engagement BEFORE progressing to strength exercises. If you are unable to hold perfect core engagement during a loading task (ie. a core exercise like a plank), the task is too demanding for your core muscles and you are risking injury. When it comes to core exercises, working beyond your capacity does not fast track you to six-pack'dom; it will most likely fast track you to injury'dom.
Here are a few fantastic, easy-to-do-anywhere core exercises that target your core endurance:
- Front plank (from knees or toes)
- Side plank (from knees or feet)
- some fun ones you can do with baby toys
I have Diastasis Recti. it is safe to contract my core this way? How can I fix my diastasis? There are SO many mixed messages about what I should and shouldn't be doing: plank, don't plank; bind, don't bind; hollow, don't hollow...
Yes. Yes. And I know! Read all about Diastasis Recti over here, this page is lllllong enough.
These rules apply to any kinda tummy and any shape of mummy. I don't care if you've had one baby or five, twins or quintuplets, C-sections or vaginal deliveries, diastasis recti, hip pain, back pain or pelvic pain. The core, is the core, is the core. Your core muscles are in there, wake them up, and use them right.
And if you don't get it today, keep practicing until you do, or see someone who will help you get it.
And once you do get it, or if you got it five years ago, keep practicing! Or you'll lose it.
You got this.
And if you want to keep on reading, I suggest you head over to learn all about the floor of your core. Your core's floor? Your pelvic floor!
Or if you want to learn about the most common core injury with pregnancy, head on over here: