The core is the collective term used to describe the muscles of our abdomen, waist and lower back. Essentially comprising our entire midsection, these muscles work to control the movements of our spine as well as supporting the movement of our arms and legs. Your core is actually made up of three distinct layers that work independently and synergistically depending on the task we are performing.

The Deep Layer

The spine consists of 33 individual bones called vertebrae, most of which are separated by intervertebral discs. Although the lowest sections of your spine are fused and immobile (the sacrum and coccyx), the rest of the vertebrae are moderately moveable. These movements are controlled by position sense muscles, which are named after their location and/or function.

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The position sense muscles run from vertebrae to vertebrae and control the lateral, transverse and rotational movements of each individual vertebra. These muscles are especially active when performing exercises on unstable surfaces such as stability balls and BOSUs.

The Mid Layer

Commonly referred to as the inner unit, this group of muscles is responsible for compressing our abdominal contents and creating something called Intra Abdominal Pressure (IAP). Increasing IAP helps to support your spine from within and occurs when you ‘brace’ your abs. Bracing has been shown to reduce the pressure on intervertebral discs when performing strenuous exercise and subsequently reduce risk of spinal injury.

How to Brace

Bracing should happen automatically and coincide with physical exertion however, as we spend so much time sitting and being passively supported by chair backs and car seats, most of us need to re-learn this essential back-protection maneuver.Don’t worry though – with practice and awareness you’ll soon be bracing without thinking about it. As a bonus, regular bracing can increase the resting tone of your abdominal muscles and help firm-up your midsection.

1.‘Pull up’ your pelvic floor muscles as though you’re trying to stop the flow of urine
2.Tense up for a ‘gut punch’, but don’t pull your belly in
3.Inhale

You should feel your midsection become rigid and strong. The trick is to time inhalation with the point at which an exercise is most difficult. For example, when squatting inhale as your descend and then exhale as you return to the standing position. Make sure you avoid holding your breath as this can cause your blood pressure to rise dramatically. Practice bracing not just when you workout but anytime you want to have a mini-core workout – practice makes perfect after all!

 To Belt up or not to

Despite what many people think, wearing a weight lifting belt does not support your spine in the traditional sense but in fact helps create  intra abdominal pressure by providing resistance when the abs are pushed out.

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This is fine when you have your belt on but if you push your abs out when a belt is not being worn, for example, when lifting a heavy grocery bag out of the boot of your car, there is a significant drop in intra abdominal pressure and a subsequent increased risk of injury.

It’s also worth noting that wearing a belt concentrates a shearing force onto the top and bottom edges of the belt and actually increases loading on your spine rather than reduces it. It’s much better to learn to use your ‘natural weight training belt’, your transverse abdominus muscles, than become over reliant on a lifting belt.

The Outer Layer

The muscles of the outer layer are responsible for the gross movements of your spine. These are the muscles most people tend to concentrate on when they do their core work.

The Muscles of the outer unit and their functions:
*Rectus Abdominus – responsible for moving your spine backwards and forwards
*Internal and External Obliques – responsible for rotation
*Erector Spinae – as rectus abdominus
*Quadratus Lumborum – responsible – as rectus abdominu

The multitude of muscles and actions of the outer unit means that it will take more than a couple of sets of crunches at the end of a workout to effectively exercise this muscle group. A well-balanced core workout should include:

Flexion: example: crunches
Extension: example: prone dorsal raises (hyper-extensions)
Rotation: example: cable Russian twists
Bracing: example: planks
Lateral Flexion: example: dumbbell side bands

There’s no need to perform each type of exercise in the same workout but make sure you train each movement equally throughout your training week. An imbalance from front to back or from left to right can cause postural abnormalities and increase risk of back injury.

Core Misconceptions

Just like any other muscle group, our core needs to be challenged with progressively heavier weights and more challenging exercises to develop and improve. This means that we should choose exercises that allow us to apply a significant load to our core.

If you can’t increase the load on your core muscles you’ll have to increase the number of repetitions you perform however, there is a definite cut off point at which you’ll end up doing too many repetitions. As a general rule, try to keep the rep count below 20. Not only will this save time and make your workouts more efficient, you’ll develop strength and not just endurance in the core muscles.

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