(Last updated Apr 28, 2020)

Core muscles are deep stabilising muscles of the abdomen and trunk. They wrap around the waist from the front to the back. When core muscles contract, they create a compressive force around the lumbar spine which stabilises the lumbar spine and keeps the abdomen compact and strong.

LIKE WEARING COMPRESSION WEAR

The effect of core muscle contraction is similar to wearing compression wear around the waist like a weightlifter’s belt. A competitive weightlifter uses the belt to tighten and support the lower back when lifting heavy weights. 

If you are a woman, you would know about spandex, our modern day corset or “shape wear.” Imagine core muscles like a piece of tummy tuck spandex. The spandex squeezes the stomach to create a narrow waistline. The compressive force, created by core muscles, is like wearing a weightlifter’s belt or spandex. When the core muscles are strong, they not only support the lower back, but also have a slimming effect around the waist.

The best part about core muscles is they are all natural. There is no need for a belt or spandex. We have core muscles in our body. All we need to do is to learn to activate them.

Find Your Core. Try Pilates

YOUR ‘POWERHOUSE’

While Pilates improves your fitness and flexibility, the exercise programme is best known to strengthen core muscles. Joseph Pilates (1883 – 1967) who created the exercises, which would bear his name “Pilates,” was perhaps one of the earliest person to recognise the importance of core strength. He described the muscles between the diaphragm and the pubis as the body’s “Powerhouse,” a natural source of power. His exercises are focused on strengthening the “Powerhouse.”

We now know from modern research, the Pilates breathing technique of “drawing the navel into the spine” is exactly how one would activate the transversus abdominis, one of the most important core muscles in the body.

How Pilates strengthens core muscles
Core muscles create a compressive force which tones and tightens the abdomen. They are the strength behind the rectus abdominis.

TRANVERSUS ABDOMINIS, AN IMPORTANT CORE MUSCLE

The transversus abdominis — TA or TVA muscle in short —  is a deep muscle of the abdomen. Being an underlying muscle, the TA muscle supports the rectus abdominis and the obliques.

The main function of rectus abdominis, popularly known as the “six packs,” is trunk flexion. The obliques, which consist of the internal and external obliques, are mainly responsible for trunk rotation.

When the TA muscle contracts, it tightens the rectus abdominis and the obliques from underneath. The action draws the abdominal walls closer together from lateral to the linea alba (centreline) of the abdomen, which stabilises the abdomen. When there is more stability, more strength can be generated from the abdomen. Core contraction is the strength behind the rectus abdominis and obliques.

SUPPORT THE LUMBAR SPINE, RELIEVE BACK PAIN

We often think of core as abdominal muscles, but the TA muscle also has a posterior attachment to the trunk. According to a study, when the TA muscle is weak, it affects the ability of the multifidus to contract and support the lumbar spine. The multifidus, a deep trunk muscle, is another core muscle of the body. 

In the study, patients with chronic low back pain showed significant delays in the contraction of their multifidus when performing normal tasks, compared to individuals with no back pain. The cause of the delays was weak TA contraction, which affected the strength of the multifidus by 4-and-half times, according to the study.

Pilates for back pain relief
Pilates is best known to strengthen core muscles. A stronger core increases abdominal strength and lumbar stability.

BACK PAIN REMEDY, 20 HOURS OF PILATES

As Pilates has a long history as an exercise for rehabilitation, many studies have been done to show the effectiveness of Pilates on chronic low back pain. So how many hours of Pilates should you do to see results if you have back pain?

A 2016 peer review, which examined the studies done to date, recommends doing at least 20 hours of supervised Pilates, twice to three times a week for chronic low back pain. The duration of the session should be for no more than one hour each time. The review — carried out by researchers from several Taiwan universities — examined a total of 40 clinical studies and picked eight “high-quality” studies for the study. Patients who completed a minimum of 20 hours of Pilates showed a significant reduction in back pain, and an increase in functional activities.

For optimal result, the study recommends continuing with Pilates for three to six months, twice a week.

WHY THE ‘SIX PACKS’ ARE NOT CORE MUSCLES

Strong core muscles support the lumbar spine and increases abdominal strength, which prevent low back pain. However, core muscles are not the most dominant muscles of the abdomen. The most dominant is the rectus abdominis, popularly known as the “six packs” and sometimes also the “eight packs.” It earns the pet name from the distinctive boxes of six or eight in which the rectus abdominis is arranged in. Being the most dominant, the six-pack muscle is also the most surface muscle of the abdomen. A well-defined, six-pack muscle is undeniably a symbol of abdominal strength, and very much part of the ideal male physique.

Unfortunately, the rectus abdominis is not a core muscle because by definition it is not a deep muscle. Strengthening your core muscles would not necessarily result in a six-pack.

In reality, most abdominal exercises don’t actually train core muscles. The burn that we feel when we do enough repetition of sit-ups, for example, comes mainly from the rectus abdominis, the surface muscle. If you are starting to think all those sit-ups, which you have done to train your core, have been in vain, don’t worry, they don’t have to be. All the muscles in our body, whether they are deep or superficial are interconnected. We just have to learn to connect them better.

STRONG CORE STRENGTHENS THE SIX PACKS

A strong core has an effect on the rectus abdominis. When the core muscles contract, they draw the abdominal walls in from lateral to the centreline. Core contraction creates a tightening or toning effect on the abdomen, which also makes the rectus abdominis compact and strong.

An analogy — commonly used to explain the benefit of an active core on the abdominal muscles —  is a beer or soda can. Ironically, beer and soft drinks are not what you should be thinking about if you want a slim waistline, but for illustration purpose only, imagine for a second, core muscles to be the beer in a can, and the rectus abdominis, the can. The beer can is uncrushable when it is filled with beer. But once empty, you could easily crush the outer wall of the can with your bare hands.

Similarly, training the six packs without training core muscles is like training an empty can. The six packs are not as strong without the core. When you incorporate Pilates to your abdominal training, you increase your abdominal strength.

Tired of Sit-ups? Try Pilates

HELP DIASTASIS RECTI, A COMMON ABDOMINAL INJURY

The ability of core muscles to tone and tighten the abdomen also means core muscles have the potential to treat and repair abdominal injuries. Diastasis recti is a common injury, caused by a partial or full separation of the rectus abdominis at the linea alba. 

The linea alba is the centreline of the abdomen, where the right and left rectus abdominis muscles meet.

Diastasis recti happens more frequently in women than men because of the trauma sustained on the abdomen during pregnancy. In men, diastasis recti often occur among men who are active and fit. Heavy weight training and excessive sit-ups put pressure on the rectus abdominis. Weight swings, intestinal problems and weaker abdominal muscles due to age are other causes of diastasis recti in men. 

In general, the research into diastasis recti treatment is limited. But new studies to examine the benefits of core exercises on diastasis recti recovery are very promising. We believe core exercises will one day be as widely practiced for diastasis recti recovery, as they currently are for back pain.

NATURAL COMPRESSION WEAR, YOU DON’T HAVE TO TAKE OFF

Having strong core muscles is like wearing a natural compression wear, which you don’t have to take off. Core specific training, which Pilates is best known for, is beneficial for both women and men alike, whether you are looking for a slim waistline or the six packs. Core muscles are not surface muscles like the six packs, but they are the hidden strength of the abdomen, and a natural tummy toner.

Don’t let your core muscles go to waste. Find your core strength. Give Pilates a try today.


Medical Disclaimer: Always consult your physician if you have an existing pain or a pre-existing medical condition before beginning any exercise. The above information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or replace your healthcare professional.

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