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Core Control

man marathon running

The terms ‘Core Stability’ & ‘Core Control’ have been used a lot in recent years, with more & more people starting to understand it’s importance. But what exactly is it? And do we need it?

‘Core Control’ refers to your body’s ability to control your trunk/core by using both your local deep stabilising muscles & your more superficial global muscles. Good core control is using the right muscles at the right time at the right amount and being able to adapt to changes in the environment and unstable situations. It is not rigid holding of the trunk.

 What are my local muscles?

Your local muscles are the muscles that lie very close to the joints. Their job is to turn on before you move to stabilise each joint & to stay turned on as you move around. They only generate a low force, but need to be able to stay on for long periods of time. In the trunk, your deep stabilising muscles are your transverse abdominis, your multifidus & your pelvic floor muscles. Unlike other abdominals, transverse abdominus runs horizontally – so when it contracts, it draws in to provide you with a natural corset.

So what are my global muscles?

Your global muscles are generally the muscles that move you. They generate a lot of force to create a joint movement, such as a squat, or a sit up. Examples of global muscles in your legs are your quadriceps or your hamstrings. In your trunk, your global muscles are your rectus abdominus & your obliques. These are the muscles that look like a six-pack (in some!!) & the ones you use to do a sit up or crunches.

Some of your global muscles such as your hamstrings and gluts also act in a stabilising role.

Stabilising muscles switch on quietly in anticipation for an action.

Why is it important to have good core stability?

If your deep stabilising muscles don’t work well (i.e don’t turn on in time, or don’t stay on while you move), your superficial global muscles will compensate. Whilst they can keep the spine rigid, they also tend to compress the joints to do so. They don’t have the fine control that the deep stability muscles do, & so when they create movement, they also cause more shearing movements through the discs & joints. This increases the wear & tear on the joints themselves over time.

Some of you may have heard that having good core stability will help in the management of low back pain. This is true. Studies have shown that there is a link between how well these muscles work, & the presence of low back pain. In other words, back pain can inhibit these muscles from working properly, & not using these muscles properly can lead to more back pain!! A vicious cycle! So improving the way these muscles work can help in the management & prevention of low back pain.

What many people don’t know is that a good partnership between your deep stabilising muscles & your superficial muscles is also important in the prevention of:

– hip & pelvic pain

– knee pain

– upper back pain

– pelvic floor concerns (eg incontinence)

– falls (especially in the elderly)

And that working on these muscles can also help you achieve a flatter stomach, & enhance your performance in the gym or in your sport!

So, will doing lots of sit-ups give me a strong core?

Not always. When you do sit-ups or crunches, you primarily use your global abdominals (rectus abdominus). You should switch on your deep stabilising muscles as you do a sit up to help stabilise the joints in your back, however this does not always happen!! This is why some people end up with an achy back after doing crunches & other abdominal exercises.

How about Pilates?

Pilates can be very good for improving and maintaining your deep muscle strength/endurance, however it will only be effective if you first know how to switch the right muscles on! Simply going to a Pilates class is not enough to improve your strength, & in fact, if done incorrectly, can lead to pain & dysfunction.

How do I improve my strength then?

To improve your strength (or more importantly, endurance) in your deep stabilising muscles, you must first learn how to switch them on!! This is something your physiotherapist can help you with. We can help to assess your level of function, help you to understand your main “cheating” mechanisms, & help you determine the best position for you to practice the exercise in. We can also progress your program to include more difficult exercises as you improve. The good news is – you do not need to go to a gym to exercise your deep abdominals & pelvic floor. You can exercise at work, in bed & even in the car. Make an appointment to learn how.