Should I be using my core all the time?
I got this great question from a client recently. And like all good questions, the answer is complicated. It’s both “Yes” and “No”.
In short, your core muscles are like a dimmer light, not a light switch. They don’t just turn on and off. Your core should engage with enough force to support the activity you are doing. Any core contraction in excess of that is unnecessary.
Most of us know that a weak or underused core can lead to injury. But we should also consider that the opposite is true as well. In fact, bracing your abs all the time may lead to tension, dysfunction, and possibly injury.
Here are the details… inner core muscles vs outer core muscles
The inner core unit (pelvic floor, tranversus abdominus, diaphragm and multifidus) are stability muscles that wrap three-dimensionally around your waist. The inner core doesn’t move the body; the inner core holds your torso steady. These stabilizing muscles help to hold the alignment of the spine, pelvis and ribcage. Whether you are standing still or moving, these inner core muscles will engage to stabilize your torso. Without help of your core, your torso would feel sloppy, like a bag of loose bones and organs.
There is another layer of more superficial muscles called the outer core unit that assist the inner core. These muscles – including the oblique abdominals, serratus anterior, glutes, latissimus dorsi among many others- have two jobs; they create movement and provide torso stability. These outer core muscles will brace in addition to the inner core to provide stability in excess of what the inner core can provide alone.
So to review, you have inner and outer core muscles to hold you steady. The outer core muscles can also move your body.
The more weight, speed, and instability involved in a movement, the more core contraction will be needed to execute that movement WITH CONTROL (insert giggles here if you’ve heard me say before). There is a continuum of core contraction.
When you are lying in bed with a good book, you need NO CORE. Your body is a relaxed puddle. Enjoy.
When you’re sitting, you’ll need some core support to stabilize you. Your core contraction should be light here – think intensity 1 or 2 of 10. If you start walking, there is more movement for your core to stabilize against so you will feel more core contraction than when you were sitting. If you begin to jog, there will be more ground force and movement so you’ll need even more core assistance now.
It’s fun to play with this concept at home. Try adding complexity to a simple squat to stimulate more core activation. Feel how your core works in a squat. Then feels how much more core strength is needed if you add weight (here a medicine call), instability (on a Bosu®), or speed (squat-jump), . Have fun!