At the heart of our balance: the core

If an individual has a centre, all the impressions coming from outside find a fixed point in that centre and is insecure, at every new impression loses balance and becomes increasingly insecure, while every new impression makes the centre of the first more and more stable. Hetty Hillesum

The metaphorical center for Hillesum exists in the physical reality of our body, it has a very precise seat made of meat and muscles and has different names: core, nucleus, powerhouse. The substance, however, is the same: it is the key to our strength and balance. From here the energy radiates throughout our whole body, implying to the movements of the upper and lower limbs. The core is the centre of the movement, the bearing axis around which all our activities revolve, from the simplest to the most complex. True and proper fulcrum (from the Latin fulcrum, support), the core supports us because it supports our spine and our posture. To train the core is to train that fixed point of which Hillesum speaks, finding stability and balance to face the movements, kickbacks and injuries (impressions...) that life and sport reserve for us.

Which muscles make up the core?

The first answer to mind is: from the abdominals. This is wrong, or rather, a partially incorrect answer. The core, in fact, is formed by two muscle systems: the stabilizer system (local musculature) and the movement system (global musculature).

The first answer to our mind is: from the abdominals. Wrong, or rather, partially incorrect answer. The core, in fact, is formed by two muscle systems: the stabilizer system (local musculature) and the movement system (global musculature).
Local musculature:

  • Abdominal Transverse
  • Multifidus muscle
  • Internal interviews
  • Diaphragm
  • Pelvic floor musculature

Global musculature:

  • Abdominal Rect
  • External interviews
  • Column erector
  • Diaphragm
  • Square of loinsRetto addominale

To sum up, we could say that the core includes all the muscles between the shoulders and pelvis, a sort of muscular corset that stabilizes the body and spine, acting as a functional centre of the kinetic chains. Several decades ago, Joseph Pilates had already called "Powerhouse" what is now called the "Core Region", indicating it as the leading element and primary source in the generation of all movements.

Core training or core stability

Each movement we perform generates instability in our body, like a stone that has been thrown on the water and that ripples on the surface. We know that, with the end of the movement, the mirror of water will return to its unmoved aspect.  Our body works in the same way thanks to core stability

The term "core stability" became commonly used in scientific literature only at the end of the last century: initially limited to rehabilitation, it was also applied to fitness and well-being in general.

Working on core is the same as working on core stability: the stabilisation mechanism, as we have seen, is at the base of all movements so it is best to focus on this first and then focus our attention on the quality of movement. If the core is stable, well trained, the movement itself will have greater stability and be much more effective. Neuromuscular control over the core should become an integral part of specific training in each sport. In fact, there was a better performance and a greater predisposition to recover and/or prevent damage from overload in trained athletes.

A strong core is indispensable for the health of the lower limbs and spinal column. The latter, although one of our bearing elements, is unstable just like the intervertebral discs and ligaments: instability does not allow them to withstand high loads. Only when the core muscles are activated does the system increase exponentially the capacity to absorb static and dynamic loads. It follows from all this that core stability is also indispensable for our daily lives, not just for sport.

Core stability exercises

We can divide the workout into two distinct phases: in the first we will focus only on activation and training in isolation of the core muscles, in the second phase we will try to correctly activate the core in the execution of daily life and sports movements. Typical exercises that activate the core are those that involve complex movements in which we use both arms and legs, as well as exercises in precarious conditions of balance. Finally, all the positions that force us to activate in order to keep the spinal column aligned with each other significantly stress the muscles of our powerhouse.

The latter group includes some of the basic exercises, the so-called "bridges" (plank and bridge, in English). These are exercises, mainly static or with minimal movements, aimed at developing the strength and endurance of the core. The exercises carried out in unstable conditions, on the other hand, involve the use of an exercise ball, foam roller, etc. and are based on the fact that in order to maintain and recover balance, the core must work in a coordinated and continuous way. It is therefore a work of endurance and coordination, as well as strength.
The execution technique is also very important, especially if we have a weak core: in this case we risk performing the exercises without using the right muscles but compensating with the peripheral ones, thus risking to increase the muscle imbalance and the load on the joints and column.
The advice is therefore to proceed gradually in the execution of core stability exercises, giving great importance to stability and control. Begin with simple exercises and gradually get to the most complex ones. The degree of difficulty of the exercises is defined on the basis of four variables:

  • number of supports (four-, tripod and biped positions)
  • motion plane (monoplanar to multiplane)
  • status changeover (from static to dynamic, from passive to active)
  • posture passage (from horizontal to vertical)

The initial exercises are carried out on the floor, after which the environment is gradually less stable and the movements increase in difficulty and complexity. In other words, we move from a program of muscle activation and reinforcement of the core muscles to a program of dynamic stabilization. Below are some basic exercises for each type of position: supine, quadrupedia and on the side.

The exercise performed in supine position is the classic bridge that has many benefits: it strengthens the posterior deltoid and the upper back, increases the flexibility and mobility of the chest, strengthens the spinal erectors, fundamental to avoid pain in the lumbar area.
How to do it:

  • lay down on the mat with your knees bent more or less at 90° and the feet resting on the width of the pelvis, breathe in, then exhale, keep your back on the ground.
  • Begin lifting the back slightly in small movements, starting from the lumbar area upwards until the bust is aligned with the femurs.
  • Stop and inhale and breathe and lower back to the ground again along the reverse route, from the top to the bottom.

The exercise we suggest in quadrupedia is the bird dog exercise, performed alternating periodically between the upper and lower limbs. The purpose of this position is to stabilise the lumbar vertebrae. This exercise also helps to improve alignment of the spinal column and hips, providing stability behind the shoulders and improving proprioception.
How to do it:

  • kneel down on all fours on the mat, keeping hands and legs apart slightly.
  • Lift an arm in front of you, holding it beside your head, while lifting the opposite leg behind your body.
  • After holding the position for a certain period of time, return to the starting position and repeat the exercise with the opposite limbs.

The bird dog exercise should be carried out slowly and the limbs should be raised and lowered without jolts, regularly. When changing sides, the core is taut. Throughout the whole exercise, the spine must remain neutral and, in the final position, a straight line must be drawn between the arm, back and leg: to avoid torso rotations, the raised leg must be parallel to the ground and must never be higher than the hip level. the neck must not bend backwards and the head and shoulders must not bend forward.

We suggest the side plank, whose main target is the transverse muscle. With this exercise we also work on the quadratus lumborum, a stabilizing muscle that is part of the back wall of the abdominal and that, among other functions, has the function of collaborating to prevent the most common back pain.
How to do it:

  • the elbow is under the shoulder and perpendicular to the shoulder and the forearm is placed on the ground in front of the body.
  • Inspire and start the movement: by contracting the transverse muscle, the entire body is lifted up from the ground until only the lateral part of the foot, elbow and forearm remain as support points.
  • At this point exhale and activate normal breathing.
  • The exercise consists in maintaining this position.
  • Once back in the resting position, the exercise will then be repeated on the other side of the body.

The simplest version of the movement requires legs to be crossed and both feet then touch the ground.

The basic exercises are needed to achieve full static control of the lumbo-pelvic region. Then, and only afterwards, we can move on to exercises performed on unstable levels.Finally, we will be able to integrate works of proprioceptive type, both static and dynamic: exercises on unstable platforms or pliometric force, exercises  that require an excellent motor control of the core.


How to understand if our breathing is correct? Sit down on the ground or lie down. Rest one hand on your stomach and put the other on your heart, then inhale through the nose. Inflate your stomach as if it were a balloon that engages air: if you're inhaling in the right way you'll feel your hand on the abdomen gets up while your hand on your chest stays still. After holding the air for a few seconds, exhale using your mouth.
It is certainly one of the fundamental aspects for the proper execution of core stability exercises. Speaking of breathing we cannot fail to mention the diaphragm, the main muscle of breathing (it should do at least 2/3 of respiratory work) and one of the core hinge muscles. The correct breathing is in fact diaphragmatic, or deep breathing, while a prevalent use of thoracic breathing generates a whole series of negative effects that also touch closely our posture.
What happens if "we breathe badly"? The pectoral muscles are activated and shortened, which cause the shoulders to rotate and close forwards, activating and shortening the scalenial muscles of the neck that carry the head outstretched forwards in a stable way, changing the biomechanics of the cervical movement, with damage to the muscles and joints. The diaphragm loses elasticity with an increase in lumbar lumbar lordosis and consequent loss of muscle control by abdominal and ileopsoas. What should we do then to breathe properly? inhalation should be performed by the diaphragm while exhalation should occur passively: the lower abdomen swells during inhalation and deflates during exhalation, the diaphragm lowers and allows space for the lungs, which can thus contain more air.
How to activate the diaphragm
We offer you a simple exercise to learn the correct breathing technique and ensure that it becomes a healthy breath that becomes automatic:

  • Lay on the floor on a mat, avoiding soft surfaces such as sofa or bed;
  • take 2-3 medium-sized books and place them on the abdomen;
  • during each inhalation try to lift the books placed on the abdomen by a few centimetres. Then during the exhalation the books will return to their initial position;
  • Do not lift the chest during inhalation. The expansion work of the lungs in this exercise is all borne by the diaphragm. This is responsible for raising the books. If the exercise is carried out correctly, breathing will only occur from the belly, while the chest will remain virtually immobile.

We recommend repeating this exercise for a few days (3-5 minutes each time) to make the correct diaphragmatic respiratory pattern.

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