Why Are Core Muscles Important?

Core Muscles Image by @mattkorinek

Use your Core muscles. But, what does it even mean? The concept of your “core” means different things to different professions. Core can refer to the abdominal muscles, pelvic floor muscles, the muscles that control the hip and pelvis, or even the back muscles. So when you're told to switch on your core, what are you really being asked to do?

To explain the core we need to take a little step back. There are basically two major systems of muscles that operate in the body:

  • Deep muscles that provide stability
  • Superficial muscles that produce mobility, allowing you to bend, straighten, turn etc.

Your core muscles are those that provide stability and refer to the muscles surrounding your trunk, forming a cylinder of sorts. Imagine the cylinder shape, where the diaphragm is the lid and the pelvic floor is the base. The Transversus Abdominus (the deepest abdominal muscle) and multifidus (the deepest back muscles) form the walls of the cylinder. They all act together to stabilise, prepare and protect the pelvis and spine for movement. This preparation for movement requires correct timing and recruitment in order to be effective stabilisers.

The most common reason for injury and back pain is the incorrect timing and recruitment of the core muscles, not a lack of strength. There IS a difference.

Core Muscles Diagram Image by

Core control is learnt by using cues and imagery to increase the connection to your core muscles in co-ordination with you breath, aiming to bring awareness to the right muscle contractions. Pilates, for example, is very effective at doing this. You need to make sure you are recruiting the right muscles before you can try to strengthen them.

How do you know your core is switched on? You don’t. The muscles are so deep and the movement is so subtle that most people wont have a lot of awareness. In fact if you feel a tightening across your abdominals, this usually means you are over-recruiting your superficial abdominal muscles. Instead focus on breathing correctly and maintaining a neutral spine and good technique. As long as you are breathing correctly, and are in the right position the core should be working subconsciously. You’re not going to “feel the burn” as you would with your more superficial muscles, but you should feel as though the exercise is easier or requires less effort to complete.

Research has also shown that a pain or injury actually inhibits the activation of the core muscles meaning that the messages that should be coming from your brain to your core are interrupted. If this is the case, no amount of strength work will help your core until you learn to restore the recruitment of those deep muscles. You have to crawl before you can walk and you have to stabilise before you can strengthen.

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