Part 1: Core Function
Let’s start by defining the core. Remove your extremities, including your head and what is remaining, including your internal organs, is your core.
Your core serves many purposes. Looking good, while important for many, is secondary to functioning well and having true health. Just as being physically fit does not correlate with being healthy. Having a six-pack abdominal wall does not mean your core is functioning optimally (I have worked with many clients that while they physically looked great they were in varying degrees of chronic pain that was the result of a dysfunctional core and altered movement patterns).
Lets consider the major functions of your core.
Protection: Your core provides a protective covering for your internal organs and your spinal cord. The rib cage and outer abdominal muscles act as a shield to protect your internal organs. The spine protects the spinal cord (part of your nervous system).
Support: Your core contains all your vital organs, except for those contained in your head. When functioning properly your organs are supported, held in place and mobilized by your core. That is, there is a natural movement within the abdominal cavity that helps keep the organs from adhering to each other, improves flow through the organs and helps maintain normal bowel function. When key core muscles function improperly, support for the organs diminishes and organ function is challenged.
Circulatory Support: The largest artery in the body, the abdominal aorta and largest vein, the inferior vena cava lie behind the abdominal organs. When the body functions correctly and is exercised properly, pressure changes occur in your core that assists the heart and extremity muscles to circulate blood and lymphatic fluid throughout the body. If the core stops functioning correctly:
- The heart has to work harder.
- The fluids flowing through your core become relatively stagnant.
- There is an increase in likelihood for fungal and parasite infections, constipation and disease.
- Overall energy levels progressively decrease.
Movement Foundation: Your core is your body’s foundation for movement. If this foundation is not functioning properly then your extremities have to compensate and work harder. Due to the unstable foundation (your core), you will most likely experience extremity joint pain, spinal pain and increased risk of injury due to the elevated levels of compression, torque and shearing stressors.
You can divide your core into two functional units; the Inner Unit and Outer Unit. While we will discuss them as separate to better understand them, they are one very complex system.
The Inner Unit
- Multifidus (deep muscles running along the spine)
- Pelvic Floor
- TVA – transversus abdominus (deepest abdominal muscle)
- Diaphragm (large breathing muscle)
Additionally, the internal obliques (abdominal muscle) and latissimus dorsi (back muscle) also play a role in Inner Unit function.
Regarding movement, the primary job of the inner unit is to create a stable foundational base for the head, arms and legs. This is done by securely attaching the ribcage to the pelvis via the spine.
Before movement of the head or any limb, the body must stabilize itself. This stability comes from your core and migrates out to the extremities. An inability to properly stabilize your core and extremities increases the likelihood of an injury. The injury will typically occur in the lower back, where there are greater loads placed upon the spine.
A functional Inner Unit can “turn on” or engage about 30 milliseconds before arm movement and about 110 milliseconds before leg movement. Regardless of the direction or speed of limb motion. This should be done subconsciously. Once the body senses the amount of load or forces being applied to the body it will also adjust the tension as needed.
A Faulty Attempt At A Solution
When most people think of increasing lower back stability they think of either the weightlifter belt or the black contraptions that are worn at the local garden / building supply stores. There is one problem with this solution, it does not work and increases the risk of injury.
The idea behind a protective belt is that you wrap it around the mid-section, cinch it up real tight and then you are on your way to move things, often heavy objects. There are problems with this.
- If you really cinch it tight then you restrict breathing. A lack of oxygen is bad for many hopefully obvious reasons.
- Most people will “brace” themselves by pressing outward with the abdominals against the belt. By doing so, you actually turn off the deep abdominal muscles making a bad situation worse.
- A tightened belt will immobilize, or restrict movement, specifically upper lumbar motion. Unless, or even if you have optimal range of motion at the hips and thoracic spine (most people do not) the body will compensate for this restriction by moving the joints directly above or below the restriction to a greater degree. The result is an elevated risk of injury in the lower lumbar region and sacrum (L5/S1) which happens to be the most injured area of the lumbar region.
Keep an eye out for part 2 where we look at how the Inner Unit should work, the best ways to disrupt abdominal function and an introduction to the Outer Unit.