The Misunderstood 'Core'

11th October 2014

What are we really talking about with ‘Core Control’ and why is it so misunderstood? 

‘THE CORE’ is probably the most overused term in health and exercise therapies. Flick your television on to any shopping channel and someone will be selling a new piece of kit that will improve it. I too thought I knew what Core Control was all about, until about seven years ago when someone finally tested me properly. I mean I was pretty strong, I could do countless sit ups and leg raises, I’d not long finished playing squash competitively and still enjoyed a high club level so I was fit too. How did I not know how to control my core?

It all starts with misinformation and a large dose of misunderstanding. You see the ‘Core’ is not some high strength forceful group of power muscles. It’s actually much more subtle. And what’s more, it’s not just located in the abdominal region.


So let’s look at the common perception of the Core and the exercises commonly prescribed by trainers and therapists. Still today most people will say that the Core muscles are the abdominals, so they go about strengthening them with abdominal exercises. “I do 100 sit-ups a day so I’ve got a great Core” is a common comment from clients. Many gyms these days even have an ‘Abdominal Crunch’ machine where you sit down in a chair with a bar against your chest and crunch forwards lifting whatever weight you can muster. Even those guys don’t realise they just invented a hip flexor machine, not a Core one! If people are slightly more educated then they’ll pull their belly button in nice and hard, drawing it towards the spine (and touching their spine with it if they could) But they are still missing the picture. The Core doesn’t work in isolation like this, it’s a group of muscles and they are small.

Defining The 'Core'

A more useful term for the Core is called the ‘Inner Unit’. By calling it this we get an idea of its depth and function: Inner = it’s deep, Unit = it works as a unit. The Inner Unit comprises the Diaphragm, Transverse Abdominis, Pelvic Floor and the Multifidi muscles. As a unit they work together for stabilisation of the pelvis and lumbar spine. What’s more important though is that they fire before any other movement of the peripherals. Not only that but they fire at just the right intensity for the peripherals to work. They shouldn’t over recruit or under recruit. So many therapists and trainers teach their clients to over recruit in exercises so they ‘feel the burn’ and this is how I was originally taught until I was shown how to assess them properly all those years ago.

Furthermore, the Core or Inner Unit doesn’t just stop there in the abdomen. It actually reflexively travels much further afield. Try this; sit nice and upright and look ahead. Squeeze your pelvic floor as if you are stopping yourself from going to the toilet. Focus your attention on your body as you squeeze and relax these muscles. If you are functioning well you’ll notice your tongue moves ever so slightly backwards. Why? Because the Core extends up the spine and into your neck, pulling on the hyoid muscles. 

So, in reality, the core is all about subtle spinal control from the pelvis to the head. If you can maintain spinal alignment whilst doing any movement from bending over the sink to wash your face to driving off the 18th hole at Wentworth, then you have good core control.

The Plank - Subtle as a Sledge Hammer

So ‘Core Control’ requires subtlety and coordination throughout the spine, both statically and dynamically. It also needs to be trained to fire under different work loads so as not to over tighten during movement. Commonly I see clients having been given ‘Plank’ exercises, which involve resting on the forearms and toes only, in a press up like position and holding as long as possible. This is NOT a core exercise but rather a total global stabilisation exercise, without the freedom to move. It will make the client fire all the big muscles like Obliques, Latissimus Dorsi, Hip Flexors, Quads etc and will overload anyone in need of true Core Control, switching these small muscles off instead of training them. Don't get me wrong, the plank is a great exercise for activating the anterior chain but if the client can't find a neutral spine (every time) then the plank is too advanced. 

So begin your core work with subtlety then gradually increase the demand on those muscles until you build up to more global stability exercises. Try starting with the Inner Unit Activation exercise, found within the pelvis, lumbar and Core sections of ExerciseLab, and progress from there through Leg Raises and Swiss Ball Rolls before moving on to Standing Push, Pull, Bend, Lunge, Wood Chops and Squat exercises. By then the client will have learnt to isolate then integrate the Inner Unit into every day function.