A guest post by Liz Oppy
I am sure over the years if you have attended any gym class you would have heard your instructor tell you to ‘engage your core’ but what exactly are your core muscles?
Understanding your core muscles
Your stomach muscles consist of three layers:
- The top layer is your ‘rectus abdominus’ or more commonly referred to as your ‘six pack’. These muscles don’t do much for your body other than look good (phew!).
- You then have your side oblique muscles, which assist you to twist and rotate.
- The deepest layer and most important layer is your ‘transverses abdominus’. These muscles wrap around like a corset to not only give your spine and pelvis its strength and support but also give you the shape of your tummy.
Whilst still extremely important to core function, the stomach muscles only make up part of your core system. The best way to describe this is to think of your core system like a box:
- The sides of the box are your ‘transverses abdominus’ or TA as mentioned above.
- Joining the sides of the box is your multifidous. These are the small back muscles in between each vertebra that gives stability and support to the lower spine.
- The base of your box consists your pelvic floor muscles. These muscles involved with controlling continence and supporting your internal organs all day long.
- The top of the box is your diaphragm. This is why it is so important to maintain a normal breath throughout your core exercises.
All these muscles work together as your body’s natural stabilising system. These muscles are endurance muscles and designed to activate ALL day long. Whether you are sitting at a desk, walking the dog or running a marathon these muscles need to be engaging. It is absolutely crucial to master the activation of these muscles in order to reduce the risk of injury and lower back pain.
So why are the pelvic floor muscles so important?
Your pelvic floor muscles are a sling of muscles attaching from your pubic bone around to your tailbone underneath. They are involved with stopping any leaking or incontinence particularly when you cough, laugh or sneeze. It is vital to have a strong pelvic floor to assist the closing of these passages particularly during high impact exercise like running jumping and skipping.
Did you know that 44% of women who participated in high impact exercise experienced episodes of leaking and incontinence? 1 in 3 ladies who have had a baby will also experience some form of incontinence post-natally.
How do you activate your pelvic floor and core muscles properly?
In my clinical experience I have found that some people can activate their tummy muscles really well, whilst their pelvic floor does nothing. How do you do both? The trick is to focus on engaging your pelvic floor. Why? It is near impossible to get your pelvic floor engaged without using all of your core correctly.
One of the most important things to remember with pelvic floor is that LESS IS MORE. If you sucked your belly in as much as you could, we would call this a 10/10 effort. To activate your core and pelvic floor you only want to be working at a 3/10. This means all you need to do is a gentle tightening of the lower abdomen.
Pelvic floor muscles have two actions – squeeze and lift. Think of your pelvic floor muscles as a clock face. Pubic bone is at 12 o’clock, coccyx or tailbone points at 6 o’clock and your hips are set at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock. What you want to do is squeeze the numbers together in the centre AND lift them up toward your belly button AND THEN feel the muscles let go. See if you can hold this for 5 – 10 seconds. If you cannot feel those muscles letting go it just means they have already fatigue and you may need to hold for less time. Its all about the quality not quantity!
Can men do pelvic floor exercises too?
Absolutely! Fellas, imagine getting up at 6am to go for your beach swim in your speedos and as you enter the water, it is a little fresh. You bravely continue to immerse yourself into the water as it rises to your knees. You see the next set of waves approaching but you are not quite ready to get cold and wet so just before that wave hits your thighs you suck in. That action is a pelvic floor lift. Correct pelvic floor activation for men is just as important as it is for women, particularly for conditions like lower back pain, osteitis pubis or pelvic instability and dysfunction.
What is pilates?
Once you’ve mastered activating your pelvic floor in isolation see if you can engage it before you stand, walk, run, lift weights – everything you do!
How do you do that? My advice is to get yourself in to a pilates session with a physiotherapist. Pilates is the most effective form of functional exercise that if taught correctly can significantly reduce symptoms of lower back pain, strengthens pelvic floor and improves peoples well being.