Core work has gained a lot of attention in the past several years, focusing on everything from injury prevention to athletic power. How we choose to define the core influences how we integrate it into our self-image and into our movement. If incomplete or compensatory patterns are repeated often enough, and long enough, they become habitual. Only when a change takes place on the level of the nervous system are we able to move past these habits and permanently improve strength, posture and flexibility (Shumway-Cook & Woollacott 1986).
Imagine the core as a cylinder—extending from the upper two ribs down into the depths of the pelvic floor. The interplay of the whole system of muscles, bones and other tissues works together in a coordinated way. As you inhale, the diaphragm lowers; the ribs expand, articulating with the thoracic spine; the upper two ribs dance with the fascia of your cervical spine; and the pelvic floor stretches, freeing the hip joints (Peck 2008).
The awareness exercises below can be integrated into a class warm-up that has a functional, postnatal or mind-body theme. These movements do not require great effort. In fact, large, forceful movements restrict the brain’s ability to make sensory distinctions, while small movements allow the central nervous system to integrate more efficient movement patterns.
Perform all movements lying on your back with knees bent and feet hip distance apart. Do sets of 5 repetitions with a short rest after each movement.
This exercise brings awareness to the pelvic floor, the base of the cylinder and its connection to the foot. Return to this awareness in other exercises like bridge, lunges or squats.
- Gently engage your pelvic floor to about 30%, and slowly let it go. Do you co-contract your abdominals as you do this? Your buttocks? Do the left (L) and right (R) sides of the pelvic floor engage equally?
- Slowly tilt the R knee toward the midline without letting the pelvis rock. Feel how this movement causes the ischium, or “sit bone,” to move away from the midline, causing the pelvic floor to stretch.
- Move the R knee away from the midline and feel how the ischium comes toward the midline and the pelvic floor shortens.
- Shift the weight on the R foot toward the outer edge, so that the inside of the foot lifts slightly away from the floor, and sense what happens in the pelvic floor.
- Shift weight to the inside of the R foot. What happens now?
- Repeat with the L leg.
This exercise brings awareness to three areas of the cylinder. Integrate this exercise into dynamic exercises like medicine ball slam or jump-squat prep.
- Place your hands 2 inches below your navel. Inhale through your nose and allow your abdomen to expand in all directions. As you exhale, softly draw in the space just below your navel and make a “sshhh” sound. Feel how the abdominal muscles and pelvic floor gradually contract.
- Lay your hands on the outside of your ribs with your elbows on the ground. Inhale, feeling the ribs expand into your hands. Exhale, making a snakelike “s-s-s” sound as the ribs move away from your hands.
- Rest your hands on your chest, elbows on the ground and fingers on your clavicles. As you inhale, allow the breath to rise up into the space under your hands. Exhale with a “hhhhaaaa” sound and sense how the sternum softens downward and the throat expands.