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What Is Core Muscle Strength Anyway?

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

core strength

There is a great deal of information online and in the media regarding core muscle strength/stability and why we should have it. What exactly is core muscle strength anyway? What is is not is six pack abs or how many sit ups you can do!

Core muscle or trunk stabilization is known to be important to our daily movement as well as athletic activities for force generation and energy transfer from the upper and lower body.

Our spine has to continually deal with forces that come into our body-going up and down stairs, impact from walking, hitting a golf ball, or picking up a baby. If we have strong core muscles, then these forces are deflected away from the spine and transferred to our arms and legs. If that happens, our necks and backs remain happy.

The core muscles deflect these forces by increasing the internal pressure of our body. This, in turn provides support for our spine and organs, much like scaffolding.

Consider a full soda can with its top sealed. The soda puts pressure on the inside of the can, increasing the strength of the can to outside forces. You could actually stand on a full, intact soda can.

core strength

If, however, your pop the top and empty the can, this internal pressure is lost. If you try to stand on an empty can, the can crushes easily.

The same is true of the core. If the core muscles are weakened and not functioning efficiently, these forces are transferred to our spines and then this is when problems can begin. Back and neck pain, herniated disks, and sciatica just to name a few.

back pain & core strength

In addition, it also has an impact in reverse-how well our arms and legs are able to function in our daily tasks and sports activities are also significantly tied to how well our core muscles can stabilize and protect our spines.

There is no clear consensus in the literature as to which muscles constitute the core, however most authors generally regard the core muscles as those of the hip, pelvis and trunk which maintain stability of the spine and pelvis when forces go through them. It is thought that this occurs by causing a stiffening of the spine to allow it to act as a base from which the arms and legs can then produce movement.

The lumbopelvic-hip complex is comprised of the low back vertebrae, the pelvis, the hip joints and the soft tissues (fascia, ligaments, tendons, and muscles) which attach to them. Ultimately, this complex is designed to maintain spinal alignment and stability by properly and safely dissipating forces that would be transmitted through the spinal vertebrae. The muscular components of the core play a very critical role as they provide the most resistance to outside force as compared to the bones and ligaments.

back pain & core strength

The deep or “local” muscles of the core such as the transverse abdominis (TA), and the multifidus (MF) provide stabilization between each vertebrae, while the superficial muscles such as the erector spinae (ES) and the rectus abdominis (RA) are more responsible for trunk mobility rather than vertebral stabilization. The transverse abdominis (TA) along with the internal (IO) and external obliques (EO) provide compressive force to the trunk with the external obliques also providing movement for trunk flexion and rotation. Other muscle groups that are prime movers (“global muscles”), rather than direct spinal stabilizers, are often considered core muscles as they have an impact on spinal orientation and overall posture. These include: latissimus dorsi, gluteals, piriformis, quadratus lumborum, superior and inferior gemelli, obturator internus, quadratus femoris, adductors, pectineus, iliopsoas, and iliacus.

Researchers have demonstrated that no one muscle is more responsible or dominant in stabilizing the spine. Rather it is coordinated team work of many "core" muscles whose individual roles change when having to stabilize the spine/pelvis. This is also dependent on the task being performed.

core muscle strength

In addition to the core muscles require highly balanced coordination of several muscle groups. Research has found that this coordination is reflexive which means that the core muscles must first anticipate movement of the legs and arms, activate a coordinated contraction of several muscle groups to stabilize the spine, and then maintain these contractions until the movement is completed. Basically, these core muscles have to jump in and turn on in a split second before we make a movement.

Therefore, when discussing how to “strengthen” the core, it is actually a more complicated event then doing a few extra sit ups. Rather, using proper positioning with a variety of different body positions will go a long way to re-educate your core as to how to fire properly and more efficiently, as well as strengthen it.

core muscle strength

Working with a physical therapist to evaluate your current movement patterns and the areas to focus in order to improve your core strength and stabilization can go a long way to not only protect your spine, but improve your daily and sports activities as well!

If you want to try a few beginner core strengthen exercises, you can sign up and

grab a copy here at our RESOURCES page.

Stay Well & Feel Good,

online strength programs

Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. Consult with your healthcare professional to design an appropriate exercise prescription. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop and consult your healthcare provider.

Dr. Kim Day-MacDonald, physical therapist

Hi! I am Dr. Kim MacDonald. I am a physical therapist who specializes in empowering my patients to optimize how they move their bodies and improve their ability to do the things they love regardless of age, experience, or capabilities.

My experience in the health care field allows me to teach the tools you need to ensure that you are working safely to improve your pain and maximize your physical potential.

If you would like to know more about how you can help yourself be healthier and live a more active lifestyle, join me here.

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