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There has been a large focus on core strengthening in recent times, however many people are not fully aware of what our “core” entails. The first thing that springs to mind for many people is our rectus abdominis or “six pack” muscles, but the reality is that we have several different muscles that help form our core: Rectus Abdominis, External and Internal Obliques, Transverse Abdominis, and our erector spinae.

The Rectus abdominis is your most superficial muscle and helps you flex or bend your body forward and it's the main muscle you work when performing exercises such as crunches or sit ups. It attaches from the bottom of your rib cage down to your pelvis and can influence your standing posture by pulling your pelvis into a posterior tilt and indirectly rounding your lower back. While often focused on because it is aesthetically pleasing, this muscle is not enough to help maintain a strong core for various movements.

The External and Internal Oblique muscles are muscles that wrap diagonally around your torso and attach onto your lower ribs, iliac crest, and your aponeurosis of your rectus sheath (the layer of tissue around your rectus abdominis). The Internal Oblique muscle also attaches to your lumbar fascia, which is the thick tissue in our lower back that attaches to your spine and helps stabilize. These muscles help you with rotation, sidebending, and compression of your abdomen for stabilization and for breathing.

The Transverse abdominis is the deepest of your abdominal muscles and attaches onto your lumbar fascia, iliac crest, ribs, and into your rectus sheath. This muscle is nicknamed the “corset” muscle because it helps draw your abdomen in and press it flat, similar to how a corset or low back brace would. This muscle is crucial in maintaining a healthy and stable back as we perform all sorts of tasks throughout the day. This muscle can be activated by drawing in the belly button toward the spine and helps to prevent the “bread-loafing” that can be seen when only the rectus abdominis is utilized.

The core is not limited to just the front abdominal muscles, but it also consists of various back muscles that help move and stabilize the spine. The largest muscle group is the erector spinae which is a collection of muscles that span from your pelvis and sacrum and attach up along your spine into your cervical or neck region. They can be seen as a large band of muscle on either side of the spine. These muscles, in addition to many smaller muscles, help maintain the spine in a strong and stable position while moving throughout the day.

Together, all these muscles work in unison to ensure that we have appropriate control of not just our spine, but of our arms and legs by giving them a stable trunk to work from. It's the difference between trying to drink water in a car while driving on a bumpy road or a smooth road. The more muscles you can activate and use to stabilize your spine and trunk, the less likely you are to experience any pain or discomfort from your daily activities.

Many people struggle with properly engaging their transverse abdominis and oblique muscles. Some things to keep in mind:

  • If you’re laying on your back for the exercises, keep your lower back pressed flat against the floor.

  • Keep your belly button drawn in and make sure you are not bread loafing! Your stomach should look flat and not rounded out through the middle.

  • The muscles on the sides of your abdominals should feel engaged and you should not be able to push your fingers into your side.

Once you are able to appropriately engage all of your core muscles then you can progress to utilizing it during exercises. Here are some exercises to get you started!




Author: Edgar Vargas, PT, DPT

Dr. Edgar Vargas, PT, DPT received his Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology with emphasis on Exercise Science from California State University, Long Beach graduating Cum Laude. He later received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Chapman University. He has clinical experience in a variety of inpatient and outpatient settings including orthopedic and neurologic. Through his treatments, Edgar aims to treat the patient as a whole by listening to and understanding the individual needs of the patient. He seeks to educate each patient so that they may become confident in managing their conditions.Outside of the clinic, he spends his time rock climbing, traveling, and relaxing with his family and friends.

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