An in-depth explanation of your Core and how to use it.
NOTE.. there is an audio file on this page, which you can listen to when lying down at night, or whenever you have time to practise the Breathing part of this technique.
Your core is made up of 3 sections and that is why we, at Back Fit, have created a 3 phase plan, to help you really get to grips with how to turn it all on. Once you are in control of your Core, the rest of the exercise programme is simple, but miss this step out and you will have missed the whole point of this programme!! You want to take control of your back pain…
Please read through this completely and then go back and work through each phase as appropriate.
The 3 Phases are the components of building an internal Powerhouse, your Core, to surround the spine with support as you go about your daily life. It will act like a back brace belt, but it is yours, it is inside you, and it will prevent you from having periods of back pain, caused by weak muscles and lack of support.
Phase 1 is about your pelvic floor, the basement of your Powerhouse. Most women know what this is, or where it is (and gentlemen, this does affect you too, so do not switch off!). In fact, this important set of muscles, as we age, becomes unused and weak and, as a visit to any care home will confirm, many elderly people, both male and female, will be obliged to wear adult nappies. Yes, I thought that might get your attention! So, it is extremely important that we learn to master this. On the upside, if you have a sex life (I never assume anything!), it can really improve performance and sensation. Wow, that must have sold you the idea!
Phase 2 is the top of your Powerhouse. This is the lid, which contains the energy; it is created by your diaphragm, which is at the bottom of your lungs and one of the key components in breathing, food digestion and relaxing the body from stress. In fact, the diaphragm is one of the most important areas to get right for general health. The diaphragm is muscular with a central tendon, which means that it can become static, or restricted, for those who are upper respiratory breathers (most people). We need to activate it and help it to function correctly.
Phase 3 is what keeps it all together, the abdominal area, with interwoven muscles that work in all directions to be able to create great strength, much like the Michelin Tyre. It is paramount that we learn to engage these muscles to complete the tension buildup, to protect the spine and energise the Powerhouse to its fullest capacity.
So, let’s get into...
Phase 1: The Pelvic Floor.
Imagine a wave, an ocean wave, only this wave is made of energy, the wave is going to start at the bottom of your torso (your genital area) and move up to your navel.
Remember, we are building the base. If there is no base, how can you build the energy that we call the Core? If, every time you squeeze (pull up and pull in), the energy falls out of the bottom, then we have lost our Core. Imagine pumping up a ball with air, but the ball has a small hole in it. As fast as you pump the air into the ball, it escapes, and the ball stays deflated; the pressure cannot build to create the Powerhouse.
This technique is not simple for everyone, but it is unseen and can be done in any situation. It can be used to take your mind off the bigger things in life, any worries or stresses, and may even create giggles or inward laughter as you feel the effects of what you are doing; outward laughter may create suspicious looks from those around you!
Why, you ask? Because we are talking around the genital area. You may be in touch with this or you may have lost touch with it years ago – it is like Kegals - exercises ladies are given after giving birth, to regain their shape and strength in the vagina.
Gentlemen! You also have these muscles (although in a slightly different layout), but when it comes down to it, they are performing the same function to prevent you from an indiscretion, helping you to ‘hold your own’ so to speak! I hope you got that, but just in case you didn’t, I am talking about preventing leakage of urine, or worse - defecation. So, building the foundation is important; you would not build a brick house on unstable foundations!
Imagine this wave of energy closing the lower orifice(s) – short, sharp and to the point. Like a lift closing its doors, nice and tight. Be mindful not to use any external muscles - no bottom clenching. It is all internal. Just closing the doors can be hard enough for some.
Once you have got this working perfectly, you can start to play with pulsing and rhythm. Let us go back to the lift analogy. Once you can close those doors effectively, it is time to explore the first floor. There are 5 floors, and you are going to get to each floor in turn. Try to lower gently; stay in control. Do not just drop the lift, lower it gently to the ground. Pulsing: set yourself targets (like 5 pulses, rest for 5 seconds, another 5 pulses and repeat for a total of 10 times). Firstly, try to do very quick pulses, rest, then slow, deep pulses, repeating 10 times.
This may bring about feelings of an intimate nature, and that is fine! This is the area we are working on, so you should experience deep pulsing, controlled by you, and this can lead to other things!
You need to do this almost all the time, to start with.
They say that some men think of sex every four seconds! Well, what a perfect alarm clock to spur you on! And ladies, when you need an emotional lift, no-one knows you are doing it, so pulse away…
This can and should be FUN…When you have been practicing successfully for a few days, start to increase the energy you put into it and lift up to higher floors.
Imagine the lift - step in and close the doors firmly. Now squeeze and lift to floor one. It is only the first floor - hold it there for a count of 5 and slowly lower. If you drop it, just start again, until you can do it in a controlled manner. To get to floor 5 you will need to invest lots more focused energy; you may even feel your eyebrows raising to assist you.
Keep repeating the process until you can get to all 5 floors, which is up to the navel level. Place your hand on your bottom to check that you are not engaging those gluteal muscles. Do this in all positions, sitting, lying down and standing.
Now Celebrate! Yippee! You have now perfected phase 1 of Core integration!!! Even if you are not there yet, this is your Goal…..
Phase 2: The diaphragm (Belly breathing)
This brings in the breathing aspect of Core Integration; learning to stretch and contract the diaphragm with the help of the breath. Most people are upper respiratory breathers, which means they only really use the upper part of the lungs; the full bellows of the lungs are left to stagnate. Initially, we need to stretch the diaphragm, and we do this with belly breathing, also known as the meditation breath, as it calms the body and the mind, so it is a wonderful technique on its own.
Start by lying on your back, facing the ceiling, with a pillow under your knees and head for comfort. Place your hands gently over the top of your navel and take a slow and steady breath in through your nose, with the air going all the way down to your navel. The belly should raise up quite significantly. Again, not everyone will find this easy or natural to start with; it may take some practice, but the benefits of this will be vast.
You may hear gurgling from your stomach; that is a fabulous sign, as it means you are starting to relax and allowing the diaphragm to release. Take as full a breath as is comfortable and breathe out through the mouth. Imagine following the air with your mind, as it enters the nasal passage and travels down the throat, through your chest and down to the belly. In fact, air does not go into the belly; it is the stretching of the diaphragm which extends down and creates a release of tension, hence enlarging the appearance of the abdomen. People with hernias and acid reflux will also benefit greatly from this technique, as it releases the tension held around the oesophagus and allows the stomach to process and digest more efficiently.
Practise this technique by breathing in through the nose, for a count of 4 seconds, then holding (if comfortable) for 4 seconds and then releasing for 4 seconds. This is known as the breath of 4s. This should be done at a slow, rhythmic, and relaxing pace. Enjoy this! It is a technique I use with patients who need to bring relaxation and healing into their bodies. You can do 30 breaths lying in bed at night, to ensure a good night’s sleep.
(See Footnote: The Vagus nerve)
Once you feel comfortable with this, and you are experiencing a decent raise in the abdominal area, you are ready for the next technique, which is the Pilates breath. But do not rush moving on; once you can properly master these techniques, they will be with you for life!
The diaphragm: Pilates Breath (lateral breathing).
Now that your diaphragm has been able to stretch downwards, it will also be able to go wide! Place your hands either side of your lower ribs, palms flat on the sides, if you can. You are going to use your hands to train the ribs to do lateral breathing.
Picture an accordion if you can. When playing the accordion, your hands pull away from the centre of the music box, pulling air into the box. You then squeeze the hands towards each other, pushing the air out, to help create the music as your fingers play the tune. This is what you are going to do now, to help your lungs fill with air in the lower section.
So, exhale fully, pushing your hands on the lateral aspects (sides) of the lower ribs, as you breathe in through the nose. Visualise the air going to your hands, and your ribs expanding sideways - no pressure from the hands on the in-breath, as if they are guiding the air towards them. Breathe out slowly and deeply, increasing the pressure from your hands to help you fully exhale through the mouth, then gently breathe in again, and release the pressure from your hands. This will become natural, but at first you are training your mind and your body to work together, as you learn this new system (or rediscover the old!).
Try this seated, and standing, when you have achieved it lying down. Take your time to really understand what you are doing, allowing your lungs to operate fully, perhaps for the first time since you were a child. This is also excellent training if you have breathing impairment or weak lungs; it can really strengthen your ability to breathe more effectively and efficiently. Master this phase before moving on :-))
To help practise, use the audio file (below) to listen to when you have a chance to relax and perfect this breathing technique.
Phase 3: The Powerhouse
This is the last phase in your Core integration, with very good reason. Make sure you have really understood and completed the first two phases! Otherwise, as you apply the muscular tension now from the middle, the pelvic floor will be pushed down and weakened, and breathing with the lateral (side) lower lungs will return to your normal upper respiratory action, losing the protection and strength that we are seeking for the spine!
However, let’s assume that you have been extremely diligent and perfected the first 2 phases, then this 3rd phase is extremely positive and completes the integration of all these sections. Yippee!!
I previously mentioned the Michelin Tyre, because it is the most famous, due to the way it is structured. It is used in high profile races because of its durability, and the way it can hold its pressure whilst spinning around the racetrack. That is because it has lots of layers of rubber, all laid out in different directions, so it can absorb the tensions of frequent directional changes. So, what has that got to do with your own Powerhouse? Well, we were built in the same way - the muscles of our abdomen are laid in layers and go literally front-to-back, side-to-side, and diagonally, and are attached to the spine. We will learn about these briefly, starting with the most important, down to the least important.
- The horizontal muscle, Transversus Abdominis, is like your very own back brace - engage it and your waistline pulls in.
- Then, we have the oblique muscles, the Internal and External Obliques. These cross diagonally over each other at the sides of your waist - they support you when you rotate or bend to the side, and work in opposite directions to each other, for extra power.
- Abdominis thoracic, which engages under the ribs at the front, to stop your ribs from flaring and…
- Finally, the one you all know, Rectus Abdominis, the one known as ‘the six pack’, which makes you feel like an Adonis on the beach, but it is only a small contributor to the whole pack, possibly the least important and far too overused.
Many more of your muscles are involved when we put the whole system together, but these are the main ones to focus on.
So, let’s put the whole thing together….
Lie on the floor, face up, with your knees bent at 90 degrees and your feet flat on the floor.
Find your neutral position. This means the pelvis, the hip bones and pubic bones are level. You can check this with outstretched hands; fingers together on the pubic bone, and the heels of the hands on the hip bones. In the neutral position, there will be a slight gap under your lumbar spine. This is your easy, or relaxed, position!
Now, place your hands on the lateral aspect (sides) of your ribs and breathe out completely, pulling up your pelvic floor and squeezing your abdominal muscles in towards your spine (“navel to spine”). Use your hands to push in on the ribs, making sure you exhale completely.
Next, release the ribs and keep the tension in the abdominal and pelvic area. Now slowly breathe in through the nose, keeping the tension. Your navel should remain pulled in, and your ribs should seek your hands in a lateral movement (lower ribs move out sideways).
As you breathe out again through the mouth, increase the tension. We can now call it ‘the Core’, so there should be a decrease in waist size, keeping the tension in your pelvic floor. This is now a Powerhouse, to protect your spine.
All this will take time to perfect, and you are learning muscular integration. Luckily for us, muscles have a memory, so, spend enough time teaching them correctly and then, when you are busy with your day-to-day chores, your body will be looking after your back!! This is the effect we are after.
To really make new lessons stick, we need to talk about it and teach it to others, such as your spouse, children, friends, in fact anyone who might have the patience to listen 👂. And keep testing yourself, wherever you are - you cannot overdo this! If you still have questions about this system, or any phase, please text me so we can discuss and resolve any questions or confusion you may have in understanding or applying any of these techniques.
Audio File - listen when you have a chance to relax and practise this technique. You can save this on your phone and listen without needing an internet connection (click the 3 dots to download).
Footnote: The Vagus nerve
The Vagus nerve The Vagus nerve deserves a mention here. The name refers to its ability to travel around the body from the brain, derived from vagabond or vagrant (traveller). It is the longest autonomic nerve in the body and innervates every part of your viscera (internal organs). The vagus nerve has the ability to control whether you are in stressed mode or rest and digest mode and we will help you utilise it later. It is the keystone to our health, and medical science is slowly catching up to how important it is. We will do a whole section on this wonderful nerve, its uses and activations, but for now, know that your deep breathing will help induce relaxation and sleep.