What is the best exercise for the core? As a pelvic floor physical therapist, this is a question that I get asked quite frequently by my clients; especially with the rise of the buzzword “core” in the health and fitness community over the past decade. But before we can dive into the exercises for the core, we must first have a more complete understanding of what exactly makes up the core.
When we hear the word “core”, most of us picture the washboard abs called our rectus abdominis and probably think of sit ups, crunches or maybe planks. But in reality, the core lies a little deeper than the muscles that make up your six-pack. We all have four layers of abdominal muscles, and the deepest layer is called the transverse abdominis (TrA). Your transverse abdominis wraps around your abdomen and acts like a built-in back brace to stabilize your trunk prior to leg and arm movements and to create tension in order to transfer load or force.
But the core is actually made up of three more muscle groups in addition to the TrA! Let’s think of the core as a 3D cylinder instead of a 2D rectangle. We have discussed the muscle on the front of the cylinder but what about the back, top and bottom of the cylinder? The muscles that help to stabilize the back of the cylinder are called your multifidi. These are short muscles at each segment deep in your low back on either side of the vertebrae. The base of the cylinder is made up of your pelvic floor muscles that fill in the bottom of your pelvic bowl. These muscles act as a sling to support all of your pelvic and abdominal organs.
The top of the cylinder is made up of your diaphragm, which is why you may notice that you find yourself holding your breath during strenuous lifting or a challenging abdominal workout if the rest of the core players are not optimally doing their job to help provide stability. Breath-holding isn’t good for your core because it increases your intra-abdominal pressure which can place extra strain on your back, abs, and pelvic floor and put those structures at risk of injury.
In order to optimally improve your core, you need to be sure that you are addressing the deepest layer of muscles on all 4 aspects of the cylinder that we discussed above. The order and timing that the muscles fire is also extremely important for optimal stabilizing function. Typically, these muscles are “on” at a low-level to some extent all the time and we aren’t even consciously aware of their timing and firing. However, studies have demonstrated that in people with low back pain and during pregnancy and postpartum, the timing and firing of these muscles becomes disrupted and sometimes reversed or non-existent!
A great core exercise is one that takes into consideration how the breath (diaphragm), pelvic floor, abdominal muscles and back muscles all work together with the correct coordination and timing. There are many different ways to accomplish this, from breathing while supported on your back to incorporating into household tasks or Olympic lifting. In pelvic floor PT, we assess how your core is functioning in its parts and as a unit, and we teach you how to engage your core with the correct coordination and timing during tasks that may be difficult or painful. So the answer to “what is the best exercise for my core” is really that there is no one-size-fits-all exercise that will be perfect for everyone but we want to start thinking beyond just isolating the abs.
Dr. Julie Berube is a pelvic floor physical therapist who is on a mission to revolutionize the standard of healthcare for women in Central New York and the Syracuse area.