Throw Crunches out the Door for a Better Core

May 2018

By: Dustin Titcomb, PT, DPT

The object of this blog post is to bring about a better understanding of what training “the core” involves.

Most people think of crunches, sit ups, or leg lifts when they are training their core. These however focus mostly on isolating and strengthening the rectus abominis, which are the 6 pack muscles that we have been led to associate with good core strength and stability. On the contrary, this isolated muscular training has little carryover into recovery, performance, and injury prevention. One of the actions of the rectus abdominis is abdominal compression. This can increase load through your intervertebral discs, possibly further aggravating low back pain.  The fact of the matter is that lumbo-pelvic stability relies on proper motor patterns to optimize the combined use of multiple muscles and muscular synergies.

The illusive “core”

Some of the structural components that make up the core are muscles such as the diaphragm, pelvic floor, trasversus abdominis, and multifidus, combining to help form your abdominal cavity. These can act as structural stabilizers if you have the appropriate resting tone in the muscles. However, it is not just these muscles that are solely responsible for lumbo-pelvic stability. Motor control, which refers to the ability of the brain to turn muscles on and off to the appropriate level of contraction, and at the right time depending on the task, is also an integral part of increasing your “core” strength. Lastly, the activation and coordinated contractions of many muscles in the back, stomach, hip, and thigh regions also contribute to our stability.

Looking further into this combined contraction of muscles we can observe what are referred to as chains.  There are four major recognized chains when it comes to lumbo-pelvic stability: two oblique systems that include your abdominal oblique muscles, thigh muscles named hip adductors, lats, gluteal muscles, and fascia both over your abdomen and over the low back. The deep longitudinal chain includes low back muscles or erectors, fascia, and hamstrings. The lateral system includes more gluteal muscles and thigh muscles. These chains of muscles and connective tissues work together to increase optimal stabilization and maximum strength.

As you can see, core strengthening involves significant consideration of many involved factors. Isolated muscle contraction can be beneficial when initially improving motor control; however, this must be done for a multitude of muscles and then continue through a proper progression through standing and more dynamic exercises to fully integrate things together. This integration leads to proper lumbo-pelvic stability and control through multi-planar movements that are performed in our everyday lives. If you are experiencing low back pain, or just want to improve your “core” strength to optimize your performance and prevent injury, the skilled care that our physical therapists provide can help to empower you.