Core support is a term much used these days especially in the world of Pilates and Yoga. Basically it is the activation of certain muscles that stabilize our joints and hold our bodies upright and prevent injury. These stabilizer muscles lie close to the skeleton and their only job is to stabilize as opposed to other muscles which are associated with movement.
There are stabilizer muscles around every joint but the ones generally meant in the term core support are the muscles which stabilize the trunk, particularly the lower back.
The primary muscles which create this stability are the transversus abdominis and the lumbar multifidus. These muscles form a girdle around the middle section of our bodies that helps to create space between the vertebrae and keep our posture aligned while sitting, standing and moving. These muscles activate milliseconds before any strong movement takes place anywhere else in the body.
You can try this for yourself by lifting something of reasonable weight and noticing the activation of the muscles in your abdomen and lower back.
This provides the necessary strong foundation for the movement. Lack of strength in these muscles can lead to lower back pain and injury. Conversely, damage to the lower back inhibits the firing of these muscles prior to movement and if the damage is not treated it can cause a vicious circle of continued pain and possible injury.
This muscle forms the innermost layer of abdominal muscle which runs horizontally across the abdomen.
If you place your hands on your belly a few inches to the side of your navel, then laugh or cough, you will feel this deeper layer of abdominal muscle activate.
Unlike the other three abdominal muscles, the transversus doesn’t move your spine. Perhaps the most effective means of exercising it entails working with the breath. Deep breathing where you gently contract the lower part of the abdomen towards the spine will exercise this muscle.
To contract this muscle even further, try resting your hands on your thighs in a standing or seated position and then take a full breath. Exhale completely while contracting your abdomen to expel the last bit of air from your lungs and then, without drawing in any new air, begin counting aloud: One, two…etc. You will experience your transversus tightening below your waist like a belt. When you are ready to take another breath, relax your abdominals and allow the air to draw in slowly.
Other asanas that strengthen the Transversus Abdominis are the Bridge Pose performed while pressing into a block between the thighs, Dolphin Pose, Plank Pose, Locust Pose, Downward Dog Pose.
The multifidus muscles lie deep within the body on either side of the spine. Each multifidus spans three vertebrae to provide solid stabilisation for the spine. These muscles start at the sacrum and end up at the top of the spine at the atlas joint.
To activate the lumbar multifidus visualize a thin rope of muscle on each side of the spine hugging it and feel the support in the lower back.
This exercise can be complemented by at the same time drawing the transversus abdominis muscles towards the spine. This is the basis of core support.
Secondary muscles which can also be activated are the pelvic floor and the internal obliques.
Pelvic Floor Muscles
These muscles lie in males at the perineum and in females in the cervix. For the purposes of core support their activation need only be a slight contraction toward the front of the muscle as a strong contraction will activate the rectus abdominis muscle, which is a mover rather than stabilizer muscle, and inhibit the transversus abdominis.
The internal obliques run parallel to the transversus abdominis but are the next layer of muscle up. They wrap around the hips and waist and form a corset of strength.
If you imagine pulling some threads which you visualise coming out of the sides of your waist you will be feeling the internal obliques contracting.
The lower part of these muscles contract in conjunction with the transversus abdominis to stabilise the trunk during movement.
It is essential to lightly engage the core muscles during yoga asanas. Core support enables safe movement into and out of poses and allows you to hold the poses with strength and openness.