I'm always there but sometimes hard to find; supportive but difficult to motivate. I can be very protective but if you ignore me, I will wither away.
Who am I?
Most will call me the "core" - a group of muscles that form a dynamic brace around the mid-section of the body. Unfortunately, the term means different things to different people. Some think of the core as the abdominal muscles while others include trunk muscles and still others include abdominal, trunk, and hip muscles.
For our purposes, the "core" is the region of the body between the mid-chest and upper thigh.
In my last post, I talked about the internal and external bracing options for lower back pain. The muscles of the core act as the internal brace increasing the stability of the lower back. From injury, surgery, or disuse (from a largely sedentary lifestyle), these muscles atrophy in some cases fail to function at all leaving you spine without sufficient "mooring".
The spinal muscles, though, are not under your conscious control - you can't make them do their job which poses a problem. If these muscles need strengthening, will not fire on their own, and you can't make the fire, how do you ever get them working again?
Like Ringo Starr once sang, "I'll get by with a little help from my friends". If you tighten certain muscles in the abdomen, the spinal muscles will contract as well. The abdominal muscle is the transverse abdominus (this muscle courses over the abdomen from side to side). You make this muscle contract by pulling in your stomach or bracing as if you're going to get punched in the stomach. When the muscle fires, it's like having a direct, high-speed connection to the spinal muscles.
I think the contraction is better if you imagine being punched in the stomach rather than pulling the stomach in (although I taught that for some time). In either case, you need only a slight tightening of the muscle to fire up the spinal muscles. So, imagine that some one is about to really smack you in the stomach. Tighten up your abdominal wall as hard as you can and call that a "10" on a scale of 1 to 10. During the day, just moving about, you need a "2" or "3" level of force. This is a conscious effort on your part and is difficult to master at first. If you bend over to pick something up, increase the tightening to a "5" and if you pick up something from the floor or over head, move the level of tightening to "7". All day long, you slide the degree of tightening to match your effort in whatever task you're in. Even just sitting at a desk, you need a "2" or "3".
Like all muscles, your transverse abdominus will tire out from use. That's a good thing. When you notice that you can't seem to hold the contraction for very long or can't increase it, rest. Lean back in a chair, lie down, or lean against a wall and just let the muscle get a couple of minutes of rest.
In addition to the "punch in the stomach" imagery, you can use the plank exercise to help strengthen your core muscles. The goal is to hold the position for two minutes and you might want to start on knees and elbows if you've never done this before. Breathe normally during the exercise. I usually suggest doing one set for up to two minutes a few times a day.
There are a number of books, videos, websites, etc., promoting "core" exercises. Here's one that's fairly good but it includes " superman" - skip that drill (yes, even the famous Mayo Clinic suggests the superman drill).
For more information on abdominal muscles and the core, read: