Andrea Young in her Corefit studio

Andrea Young
the clinical Pilates and
functional movement specialist

Core fitness

Your core and how to use it

One of the most common phrases in gyms today is ‘core fitness’. People tell you how important it is and that it must be strong for good health. But what is ‘the core’? Where is it, how do you ‘turn it on’ and make it strong?

About your core

Many believe that it’s simply another way of describing the abdominal muscles and talk about bracing, tightening or pulling in the belly button to turn on the core. But it’s important to understand that the core is not just made up of the abdominal muscles that we are familiar with.

A good way to think of the core is as a cylinder of muscles. The base is the pelvic floor, the lid is the diaphragm and the wall is a muscle called the transverse abdominus (TVA). The role played by the diaphragm is why breathing is so important to techniques like Pilates that place emphasis on the core musculature. But there are also important muscles within this cylinder and close to the spine together with muscles outside of the cylinder which also make up the core, including muscles which stabilise the pelvic and shoulder girdles.

Put simply, the TVA is a corset-shaped muscle which flattens the stomach, cinches the waist and supports the back just like a corset. When properly activated it is the first step in correctly recruiting the core and also provides cushioning for our organs while we move.

The diaphragm is an umbrella shaped muscle which sits approximately at the level of the lower ribs. It is essential to breathing.

The pelvic floor musculature is effectively a hammock across the opening of the pelvis which holds in the internal organs, facilitates excretion, sex and child birth. And yes, men have one too – it’s a common misconception that pelvic floor exercises are only of use to women when they are an essential part of everyone’s abdominal health.

When correctly engaged the muscles of the core work in synergy to hold our spine in good alignment, holding it correctly and constantly protecting it. Whether simply sitting or standing, or doing something more complex like walking, lifting or throwing, correct core function is essential to a body that moves in a healthy and safe way.

Exercising the core

Every time we move we potentially use, or ‘recruit’, the core muscles. One part of our body will try to brace to hold us steady while another part of it tries to make the movement. In a body that moves with healthy movement patterns the deeper muscles of the torso, known collectively as the core, hold us steady. The larger, superficial muscles move the skeleton. Recruiting the core is automatic. We don’t normally think about doing it.

But few people in the general population have perfectly healthy movement patterns, particularly as we get older. Over time, for many different reasons, we subconsciously develop ways of moving that create unhealthy, repetitive patterns or have a detrimental effect on our posture. There are endless examples of this: the parent carrying around a heavy child on one hip resulting in hitched hip; the office worker developing a rounded back through years of sitting at a desk. Even the athlete whose sport involves repetitive actions on one side more than the other can build in imbalances.

If the core is not strong enough to cope then the body, being ever-adaptable, recruits other muscles; hijacking muscles not intended to work as stabilisers into assisting the weak core. So to exercise the core is not just about applying the usual exercise principles to a particular set of muscles. In this case to strengthen the core, it’s also about making sure we are standing, sitting, lying, moving in optimal good alignment at the time so that we use the right muscles for the right job.

We move in multiple planes. Front and back, left and right, up and down creating complex hybrids of directions and levels. Core exercises should challenge our ability to remain strong against forces applied upon us, or where we need to apply force against something else; pushing, pulling, bending or twisting for example.

Pilates, or mindful functional exercise, are excellent ways to develop self-awareness of the core. At a Corefit Pilates class you will find out exactly where your core is, how to turn it on, and what it feels like when it’s working. And in functional classes, like Body Conditioning, you’ll see how important the core is to all of your movement patterns and learn how to use your core to move and exercise correctly, efficiently and safely.