It has recently come to my awareness we have a new definition of what the core really is. The core has been viewed by many as being abs, back muscles, and maybe glutes. These are all really important, of course, but we have overlooked the deep system that allows for optimal movement and control. 

What muscles actually make up the core?

The true core, or as I prefer to call it, our “deep system” is centered around 3 muscles. The diaphragm, the transversus abdominus (TA) and the pelvic floor (albeit a group of muscles). These muscles fall into the slow twitch category of muscles, affording them to always be engaging on some level to support you any time you are against gravity. They work with your breath, contracting and relaxing in coordination with each other, much like a piston. The effect is a consistent ebb and flow of pressure in your trunk, creating stability. 

The diaphragm is an umbrella-shaped muscle the is nestled under your ribcage. When it contracts during an unstrained breathing pattern, it flattens, pressing downward on all of the organs below. The net effect is creating a negative pressure and room for your lungs to fill up with air. The lower ribs expand out to the side, the belly (TA) expands and the pelvic floor drops/stretches/lengthens like a trampoline. On exhale, much like a trampoline floor rebounding, the pelvic floor returns to baseline, as does the TA and the diaphragm. The amount of contraction that the muscles do is related to the task at hand. Meditation and weightlifting, for example, would certainly require different demands on the system! 

Pregnancy posture can cause dysfunction after having children!

Women after pregnancy (yes, any time after a pregnancy) are particularly susceptible to dysfunction within their deep system for several reasons. Many women maintain their pregnancy posture post-partum. Their pelvis tilts into the “butt tucked under” position and their ribcage shifts backward to balance the once growing belly. There are variations to this posture, but they all typically cause a dyssynergia (disturbance of muscular coordination) between the muscles of the deep system. 

Secondly, and recently gaining recognition post-partum, is the infamous DRA, or Diastasis Rectus Abdominis. Separation of the Linea Alba during the last trimester of pregnancy happens 100% of the time. It’s what happens after the baby is born, both vaginally and very commonly after C-section that determines the fate of the deep system. Being able to restore the connective tissue strength and the coordination of the TA with the deep system is essential for proper mechanics and function. Dispelling the myth that it is about closing the “gap”, and instead learning about how to create tension is crucial. 

It goes without saying that the pelvic floor undergoes significant change during a vaginal childbirth, as well as having had to endure the weight and pressure of a baby for months. Many women experience weakness, tightness, and pain from tears and trauma that continue to haunt them even years after. This all can affect the function of our deep system that goes overlooked. 

Finally, stress, anxiety, nutrition, overall activity level and understanding can all impact the state of our deep system. The body is a whole, not just the sum of its parts. Looking at the big picture in assessing our core can truly make a big difference. 

So, what can you do? Become aware! 

Pay attention to how you are breathing, standing, lifting. Stop ignoring the mild leakage with coughing/laughing/sneezing/lifting. Listen to the complaints of your body, such as pelvic, back, hip and even neck/shoulder pain. Get the help you need from a women’s health Physical Therapist, you should be able to feel healthy and strong at any age! 

Physical Therapist at Freedom Physical Therapy Services
Tracy is a Marquette University Graduate, receiving her BS in Physical Therapy in 1992. Her career began at Columbia Hospital on Milwaukee’s east side where she focused on treating rheumatic conditions, including osteoporosis and fibromyalgia.