Why You Should Read This
Last week, I wrote about the importance of “core” strength in movement and in life. I’m not the first nor the last person to say this, and thank goodness! Because when you start to hear the same message from professionals everywhere? More often than not, they’re worth listening to.
Like many of you I had heard the same message again and again: “your back hurts because your core is weak, strengthen your core.”
I heard it, but I wasn’t taking it. At least, not at face value. Not that I was denying the need for a stronger core. But for a long time, “core strength” was an illusive magic bullet that wasn’t hitting me. I didn’t “get” how core strength works. And I’m a get-inside-and-see-how-stuff-works kinda gal! Until I do, my motivation to follow good advice fails to reach the get-it-done threshold.
Now that I think I understand how core strength works, I feel soooo strongly about building it! It’s not the key to everything, but it’s pretty damn close.
If you need to understand from the inside out why core strength is essential to good movement, then keep reading. I hope I can help you imagine your inner workings just enough to figure out what core strength means to you!
Your Trunk: What’s Inside + Why It Needs Your Attention
This silly drawing represents you — your spine, ribs, and pelvis.
Together, they make up your bony trunk. These structures house all your vital + visceral organs (heart, lungs, stomach, etc). Your spine houses your spinal cord, the information highway between brain and body.
What does this tell us?
Our trunk houses and protects our organs. The position, as well as the capacity for stability and mobility, of our trunk matters — a hella lot — to our organs. More to the point, it matters to how well our organs function.
Let me explain. You’ve probably heard a yoga teacher mention the benefits of twisting, forward folding, and such, right? Benefits like improving digestion, flushing out toxins, and boosting circulation. My assumption is that they are not wrong! But the evidence we have doesn’t point to magical yoga poses causing this good stuff, it points to movement. Move your body, any kind of movement, and your organs will do the rest. Your organs function in pretty much any non-pathological situations. (** More on that below.)
Our trunk structures (bones + muscles + more) balance our biological need to move with our need to protect our soft innards.
Bones provide movement limits –protective stability. Take the ribs, for example. Ever wonder why we call the ribcage a cage? Because the 24 ribs work as a unit to hold and protect the heart and lungs. More importantly than the semantics, is that the ribs limit our ability to bend the upper spine, thereby limiting our ability to squish and squeeze our vital organs more than they enjoy.
Below the ribcage is our waist, where there is a lot less bony structure — just our spine!
The visceral organs must not mind being squished, because we move + squeeze our lower trunk a lot. And from all evidence, this is a good thing. We should be able to move the spine through the full range the spine joints (and organs!) allow. The lower spine allows quite a bit of movement, even though the organs in the lower trunk still need some holding in, some protection — not to mention the spine itself. It needs holding up, too! The spinal cord is inside and, well, it’s kinda essential.
So those are at least two reasons why it’s important that we be able to carry the length of our spine upright. It’s in this “upright” length that our joints and organs have the most uniform space and support. And so, when we move through life normally — folding forward, bending backward, leaning to the side, and twisting our trunk, we need to know how to get back upright again.
That doesn’t sound so hard, does it? It’s not really. But what happens when the folding forward, backward, or to the side becomes a habit that we don’t return from? When even a little bit of folding hangs around, if it’s habitual, that can mean losing the ability to bring the spine back upright.
At 216, we’re forever encouraging you to find your “neutral” spine.
Neutral is the “upright” I’m talking about. Neutral is the place without compression or folding –on any of your trunk structures. While you don’t need to stay there all the time, it’s the sign of a healthy trunk to be able to return to it whenever you choose. In class, we work on establishing that neutral not only upright, but at all angles to gravity. This trains your muscles to recognize a relationship within the trunk, rather than a rigid position of your skeleton.
How do you find neutral again and again?
The muscles of your trunk are set up to move you, not keep you still, right?
Yes, and no. Muscles work in pairs and in networks, always in conversation with one another. Finding and sustaining neutral is a conversation of perfect balance. And it should, when practiced enough, become effortless.
But what happens when it’s not practiced? One speaker dominates the conversation. Bones get pulled to one side by its sway. It becomes hard to grasp what the opposite speaker is saying, and so the bones never venture over its way. Muscles grow out of sync with one another. Their conversation is confounded through the obstinance or timidity of a few culprits.
How do you get all those players back to using high-functioning listening and speaking skills?
You change their roles. The obstinate muscles need to make some room for the new voices (create length). The silent muscles need to start speaking (build strength). And while they’re doing that, both speakers need to respect the conversation at all times! That means speaking up when necessary to keep the ball rolling. That means staying quiet when it facilitates good dialogue.
Of course, to play their parts, all parties need to know where the conversation is going! And that’s where we get back to Core Conditioning! Core work teaches your trunk muscles when to be strong, when to take it easy, and how to take cues from within their network.
Remember your trunk, with your spine, ribs, pelvis, and your waist area with not a lot of bony structure? It’s 360 degrees around the waist area that much of your “core” musculature lives. The muscles here need to know how to move your spine, ribs, and pelvis, but they also need to know how and when to keep it still. They need to know how to provide bony-structure-like support. Which is why I’m going to tell you about the movement your core muscles can prevent!
A little anatomy lesson
Let’s meet your anterior abdominals! C’mon, you know you want to nerd out with me here– I even made really bad sketches rather than dig up ol’ Gray’s Anatomy images. While not crazy accurate, I hope my sketches offer a quick insight into where your muscles live and how they can do what they do.
The deepest muscle in your anterior abs is the transverse abdominis.
Transverse attaches to the ribs + pelvis and wraps around the waist like a corset, cinching in from the sides and the front. Trans ab provides the first layer of support. It helps to keep your ribs and pelvis in a stable relationship during breathing and transferring force from the legs to the arms. In addition to resisting collapse of the abdominal cavity, trans ab can squeeze in on your organs, usually creating downward force (helps with waste elimination and childbirth).
The second layer of muscle in your anterior abs are the internal obliques.
Internal obliques run from the back of the pelvis to the ribs + front center line (the light blue line).
The third layer of muscle in your anterior abs are the external obliques.
External obliques run from the ribs to the front of the pelvis + front center line (light blue).
The internal + external obliques both resist backbending, sidebending, and twisting. This contributes to trunk stability in many reaching and carrying actions. In addition to resisting almost every movement your legs, arms, and spine can make, the obliques will also move the spine to the side, forward, and around in a twist.
The top layer of muscle in your anterior abs is the rectus abdominis.
Rectus is the “6-pack” muscle. It runs from your pubic bone to your breastbone.
It works with the obliques to resist backbending, pretty much all the time. When you want to round your spine forward, rectus jumps into action then, too. When you’re seated, backbending isn’t as likely, and forward bending is accomplished by your position, so rectus takes a break.
Why are the anterior abs so darn important?***
Together, your anterior abdominals work to keep your spine in a neutral position, more or less. If more, they’d be cartilage or bones instead of muscles. If less… well, that’s where many of us actually live, letting our muscles do less than they should to support strong, supple whole-body movement throughout the day.
Think of your core muscles like shock absorbers and force transfer-ers. Every time you swing and reach your arms, every time you jump or kick, every time you pick up a heavy object (kids count!), your core muscles, being in the middle, transfer force from one end of you to the other.
If you’re not sure what I mean, try it out for yourself:
Stand on two feet and start swinging your arms, fairly quickly. It doesn’t matter in which direction.
My guess is that you experienced at least one of two things:
- Swinging your arms caused your spine and possibly legs to twist.
- Swinging your arms caused you to brace in your core to keep your hips and legs still.
In the first case, your core muscles transferred the force of your swinging arms through movement –by moving the spine and allowing movement to continue through.
In the second case, your core muscles absorbed the force of your swinging arms through steadiness –by bracing around the spine and resisting movement passing through to the legs. You may even have felt your leg muscles firm up, too.
That’s what your core muscles work together to do, all day long. When they do it well, you move well. When you they do it poorly, good movement is a bit more of a challenge.
But it will keep until next time! And if you don’t want to wait, check out our Next Level Series workshops and Teacher Training programs. We go deeper, including hows + whys!, into the trunk + core anatomy, plus so much more. Join us if you’re hungry to know how your body works from the inside out!
In the meantime, stay core strong!
** Yes, changing things up can challenge our system. And it is possible that that challenge is what keeps things healthy. (I don’t know, because I haven’t found any proof that it does. Anecdotal experience, yes. Proof that isn’t tied to any specific individual, no. Which is to say: If it works for you, great! Keep doing what you’re doing! But, please please be up front when recommending it to others, as it may not work for them.)
An organ has its own process to follow, regardless of whether it’s right side up, upside down, or turned sideways. Unless, of course, there’s pathology at play. In that case, there is no amount of twisting or bending that is going to “purify” your organ of its pathology. That said, yoga may help your whole wellbeing, which can make space for your body heal (because it knows how to do that, too).
Motility is an anatomical term for the movement within an organ. This is the movement that should happen whether the rest of you is still or moving. When you have good organ motility, they have a better shot at staying healthy. When you have good body mobility, you have a better shot at staying healthy.
Of course, moving your body, if you’re able to, is a big part of keeping healthy and bright. So, please, KEEP MOVING.
(That’s me, shouting it from the rooftops, because it is just that big a deal. If you know me, you know that I am a fan of neither shouting nor being on rooftops. But for this message, this super-timely, world-changing message, I can deal.)
*** I gotta say, I’m feeling really bad about leaving out the posterior abs, but this post is long enough! Next time, I promise.