A lot of people don’t know how to contract their core. These are the people with back pain I see in my chiropractic and sports injury practice most often.
But what is the core?
Think of your core as a tin can. Inside the tin can is where all of your internal organs reside. The top, bottom, front, back, and sides of the tin can is composed of all of your core muscles.
The top of the tin can is your diaphragm muscle. When you lift something heavy, you take a big deep breath in and contract your diaphragm pulling air into your lungs. Then as you lift, you purse your lips a bit and exhale out through your lips as you exert yourself. When you breath out, you are releasing the air in your diaphragm, and closing the top of the tin can. This creates a stable top of your core.
The bottom of the tin can is your pelvic floor muscles. When you contract your pelvic floor muscles, you are basically doing Kegel contractions. You also use these muscles to actively stop urination, or defecation. When you contract these muscles, they feel like they are contracting upward, and you are closing the bottom of the tin can. This creates a stable bottom of your core.
The front and sides of the tin can are your abdominal muscles. When you properly contract your abdominal muscles, you create the front and sides (walls) of the tin can. This creates stability at the front and sides of the can.
The back of the tin can is composed of your spinal muscles. When these muscles are contracted, they stabilize the back of the can.
When all of these muscles are contracted at once (diaphragm, abdominals, pelvic floor, and spinal muscles), especially when bending over or lifting something heavy, they stabilize your entire body, and in particular, they stabilize and secure your lower back and mid to lower spine protecting it from injury.
But the core doesn’t just stabilize your lower back. Your core provides stability to your entire body. When the core is contracted and tight, your arms have a stable base on which to lift or throw objects, and your legs have a stable base on which to stand, squat, lunge, walk, or run.
Athletes tend to use their cores very well. It is a strong core that enables Lionel Messi to kick a soccer ball with such velocity. It is a strong core which enables Madison Bumgarner to throw a fastball at 95mph. And it is a strong core that enables Brittney Griner to jump up and dunk a basketball.
Professional athletes aren’t the only ones who need to use their cores though. You need to use your core every day. You need to engage and contract those muscles to protect your back during regular activities of daily living.
If you are lifting up your three year old who weighs 30-40 pounds, you need to contract your core, or you’re going to put a lot of stress on your back, and possible strain your lower back muscles. If you’re in the gym lifting a 25 pound kettle bell, you better contract that core or there is a good chance your going to need to come to my office for some back pain treatment. Even if you are just opening a door into an office building, it’s important to contract your core a little bit to provide stability as you pull that heavy door open. I would even go as far to say that when you are bending over to tie your shoes, you should be contracting your core a little bit.
The amount of core contraction is relative to what you are doing. If you’re lifting your three year old, I think you need to contract your core around 50%. If you’re in the gym doing a squat or a dead lift with 100 or more pounds, you pretty much need to contract your core in the 80% to 100% range. Of course, the amount you have to contract your core is relative to your fitness level. If you are in really great physical condition and work out regularly, you might only need to contract your core 50% to lift 50 pounds. But if you are in low to poor physical condition, you may need to contract your core 80% to 100% to lift that same weight.
I can tell you to be careful and contract your core ad nauseam, but if you don’t know how or when to actually contract and use your core muscles, what good is what I have explained going to do for you? And don’t get overly confident because you do lots of crunches and planks at your favorite fitness boot camp. Sure, you might actually have strong core muscles — but if you don’t know how to contract and engage those muscles during activities of daily living, all you are doing is risking a back strain and an eventual visit to your local chiropractor.
That is, however, where sports chiropractors, kinesiologists, and exercise physiologists come in. If you have frequent issues with back pain, or muscles strains in your lower back, there is a good chance you need to learn how to contract your core. Someone needs to teach you how to engage it and when to engage it.
To help you at this very moment, try out the core contraction techniques explained in this really well done video I found on YouTube. Credit goes out to Mary Bower, the creator of this video. I don’t know her personally, but her video is very intuitive. I would like to add, when you are doing her “Ha Ha” method of feeling what it is like to contract your core, press your fingers into your stomach when you say “Ha Ha” to feel your muscles activate. Also, try going “Ha,” and hold that contraction. When you hold the “Ha,” your stomach muscles should feel harder to the touch.
And just because you might have a little or a lot of fat on your stomach, don’t let that deter you. You have muscles under that fat, and they are stronger than you think they are, even if you don’t work out that much. You just have to use them. They’re there. They work!