Generally speaking, the “core” is the trunk of the body. Take off the arms, legs, and head and what you have left is the core. However, the gluteals (the butt muscles) are also considered core muscles. Some even consider the thigh muscles to be in the core. So we need to look at this in more detail.
And then some talk about “strengthening” the core while others talk about “stabilizing” it. What’s the difference? What are you supposed to do?
To me, as a contemporary Pilates instructor, I talk about the core as being the box created by the pelvic floor muscles on the bottom, the diaphragm muscle on the top, the deeper abdominal muscles in the front and sides, and the intrinsic (deeper) back muscles in the back.
Yes, the glutes to help stabilize the trunk, so they are important, up to a point. The rectus abdominis (RA or six-pack muscle) is a trunk (global) mobilizer, but it’s not a stabilizer and using it first means you can’t get to the deeper muscles that are more important.
I’ve mentioned strength and stability. I’ve mentioned mobilizers. Does that mean there are stabilizers? Yes. I’ve mentioned “global”. Does that mean there’s a “local”? Yes, it does.
As I’ve said, the RA muscle is a global mobilizer. It can be used as a stabilizer, but that’s not its first function, so it doesn’t do that very well. The next layers of muscle inward from the RA are: the external obliques, the internal obliques, and the transversus abdominis (TA) muscles.
To protect the back, you need to access and engage the deeper muscles of the body. To move effectively and efficiently, you need to access the TA muscle. What’s that, you say? Where is that? How do I get to it?
As their name implies, the obliques are on a diagonal on the body. The external obliques form a V in the front of the body by running from basically the pubic bone upward and outward to the sides of the rib cage. (There’s a large tendon sheath that actually covers the front of the belly that these muscles are attached to and a part of.) The internal obliques form an A (without the crossbar) from the center lower rib cage outward and downward to the top edge of the pelvis (the iliac crest). The muscles help you twist and bend to one side. They are also used to scoop the abs or to bring the front of the pelvis closer to the front lower edge of the rib cage.
Underneath the obliques is the TA muscle. It wraps around the body like a girdle. This muscle is one of the more important muscles because its primary job is to stabilize the spine. And, what fascinates me, is that, ideally, it should fire more than 1/10 of second before moving a leg in any direction. If it doesn’t, it’s pathological, or not doing its job. It can fire as late as nearly 1/2 second. This means that if you want to walk, sit, run, stand, adjust your leg position on the horse, use your legs effectively as aids or cues, then you need to be on a first-name basis with your TA muscle. How do you do that?
One way to access the TA muscle is to activate the pelvic floor. For those of us who have had children, this is like doing a 10% Kegel exercise. For those who don’t know what that means, it means imagining that your at beach or park where the facilities are at least a mile away and you have no car and you’ve just down a six pack of your favorite beverage. There are no bushes to use either. You’ve got to walk that mile to the restroom or outhouse and that takes 20 minutes. What muscles are you going to use? 🙂
Squeezing the thighs together can help you activate the pelvic floor but that’s not always possible. You might be riding a hot, red-headed mare who goes bonkers when you do that. So in exercises that you do off the horse, you can start by squeezing your thighs together, but know that you’ll eventually want to move away from that. Tightening the glutes (butt muscles) can help also, but what will that hot, red mare think of that? Might that land you in the next county, too? Even if it doesn’t, squeezing your butt muscles really tight lifts you up out of the saddle and you’re no longer in contact with your horse’s back.Okay, so what about the difference between strengthening and stabilizing? First, strengthening exercises achieve results (more strength) by utilizing high repetitions (reps) and high loads (lots of weight). Think body builders – massive muscles, lots of strength. Unfortunately, they don’t have much flexibility, which most people need, too.
Stabilizing exercises utilize low load and low reps. Most Pilates exercises have only five to ten reps, but very focused on alignment, using the breath, and mind-body awareness.
Second, different muscles do different jobs. Remember I said that the RA muscle is a global mobilizer? It responds very well to strengthening exercises. But the TA muscle doesn’t respond to strengthening exercises; it responds to stability exercises because it is a local stabilizer.
There are three broad groups of muscles in this discussion: Global mobilizers, global stabilizers, and local stabilizers. I’ve already mentioned the first and the last. What’s that one in the middle? Global stabilizers produce movement with stability, dependent upon direction, and function non-continuously. Global mobilizers produce large ranges of movement, dependent on direction, and they function non-continuously. Local stabilizers provide significant stability, regardless of the direction of movement and the muscles’ activity is continuous.
If you imagine that your spine or trunk of the body is the tower for a drawbridge, you might begin to imagine why the trunk needs to be stable. To draw the bridge up or let it down, the tower must be immobile. If the tower is not stable, if it’s wobbly, it won’t be able to control the bridge in either direction. (Conversely, if you could stabilize the bridge part and move the tower, the same mechanism would move the tower relative to the bridge.) When you try to help someone else up off the ground, you need to stabilize or brace yourself to help them up or you’ll end up on the ground too.
Did this help clarify things for you? Please ask me questions if you’re not sure.