We often hear the terms ‘engage your core’ or ‘use those core muscles’ in the performing arts world but just what is ‘the core’ and how do we use it?
The core refers to the trunk of the body and the muscular system which aids in providing support and stability for the spine and pelvis. When we think about the core we often think first of the external musculature, the muscle which gives the ‘six pack’ appearance, a.k.a the Rectus Abdominis, but there is much more to the core than this muscle alone.
Let’s break the core up into two groups: anterior muscles and posterior muscles
Anterior muscles of the core
These are the muscles located at the front of the trunk and they include: the Rectus Abdominis which is important for moving the rib cage in relation to the pelvis, Internal and External Obliques which together control rotation and side bends, and the Transversus Abdominis which is often referred to as the ‘corset muscle’, it helps to compress the ribs, not unlike a corset, to aid in spine and pelvic stability.
Posterior muscles of the core
This group of muscles are located at the back of the trunk and they are: The Erector Spinae which is a bundle of muscles and tendons that lie in the groove at the side of the spine and help the spine rotate, the Deep Multifidus which is an important stabiliser of the lower back before the limbs move, and the Quadratus Lumborum, connecting the pelvis to the spine, assisting the diaphragm in inhalation, and in flexion of the trunk. Two other muscles which help to stabilise the trunk and are often not considered are the Lower Trapezius and the Latissimus Dorsi which help to depress the shoulder and aid in side bending movements.
Other important muscles of the core
In addition to the anterior and posterior muscles of the core there are three other important muscles which include the diaphragm, the pelvic floor and the Iliopsoas. Learning to engage these muscles correctly can facilitate core stability and help to further support the link between the upper and lower parts of the body.
So just what is core stability and why do performing artists need it?
There is often more of a focus on strengthening the core with a large focus on planking and abdominal exercises e.g. sit ups and crunches, however working on the external core muscles alone can lead to key weaknesses in supporting the whole body in movement.
Core control involves more than just strengthening the abdominals it involves coordination of muscles to support the spine, it is all about creating a stable base from which the limbs work.
Until there is a level of stability in the core, it will be more difficult to safely achieve a level of strength in the core throughout dynamic movement.
Core stability and injury
Another reason why performing artists require core stability is to aid in the reduction of injury risk. If we lack core stability it has been suggested that we are more prone to lower limb injuries, back injuries and it has also been suggested that a weak core could contribute to shoulder injuries, all of which are common across performing artists. Consider a dancer lacking adequate core stability, placing unusual demands on the body which could apply additional loading to the spine and pelvis area, or a musician simply carrying and holding their instrument in a position which is not natural for the spine. Core stability can aid in these types of movement and help to protect the back and pelvis and ultimately the limbs.
Effective and safe ways to train core stability
So we want to train and enhance our core stability but how do we go about it in a safe and effective way? Firstly understanding the anatomy of the core and each muscles job can go a long way to understanding how to train them to do the role they are meant to do. It is then important to train all of these muscles collectively, to avoid excess strain on the more superficial muscles (e.g. Rectus Abdominis and External Obliques) the deep muscles must be working too (e.g. Transversus Abdominis). Finding a training programme which involves a combination of strength, endurance, power and proprioceptive work will help to train the muscle’s patterning, exercises which involve balance work and resistance work which challenges stability is thought to be very effective. Pilates classes/exercises are an excellent way to learn to engage and utilise the core muscle group to enhance its stability. Exercises which incorporate the use of an uneven surface, such as air discs or BOSU balance trainers, will aid in the training of balance and proprioceptive awareness and will challenge the core further.
If you are a performing artist and you are considering enhancing your core stability make sure you train safely, targeting those deep muscles too, both at the front and back of the trunk, it’s not always about crunches and sit ups!
Graduate Intern, Health and Dance Science