Core Strength and Muscle Activation

Editor’s note: “Dr Ben” is the strongest chiropractor we know. He routinely pulls big deadlifts in the gym while simultaneously working on healing up big deadlifters in his practice. We asked him to write a piece on what he felt was important to keeping a lifter’s core strong and healthy. Here is what he sent us:

I decided to write this particular post on the “core” and how to properly engage it when lifting. I chose this topic because it is a basic skill that all lifters should know. Proper core recruitment and function is of paramount importance, not only for performance but also injury prevention.

What is the core? The core is composed of the lumbar spine, which includes the last 5 segments in the vertebral column, the muscles of the abdominal wall, the back extensors, and the quadratus lumborum, which sits just in front of the back extensor muscles. These muscles co-contract to offer stability to the spine when performing different types of movements and lifts.

Core muscles. Photo by CrossFit Resurgence
Core muscles. Photo by CrossFit Resurgence

Having a strong core does not necessarily mean you need to have washboard abs, and those with washboard abs do not necessarily have a strong core.

Often, when treating lifters with back pain I will assess the core. Proper engagement of the core musculature will often relieve pain when performing movements such as the squat and deadlift. The trick is to engage the core muscles in a “hoop-like” manner so that you are maintaining that neutral spine throughout the movement, which will help increase performance.

Breakdown of core muscle engagement can lead to faulty spine movement, energy leaks, and can lead to pain and injury. A good way to think about how core affects the spine is to imagine your back as a tower with support cables all around it. The tower is the spine and the cables are the core muscles. If you remove the cables on one side of the tower this weakens the overall strength of the structure and it is now at an increased risk of buckling and collapsing, especially if acted upon by an outside force. So, if the muscles on one side of the spine are engaged while the others are left silent, the spine is now at a higher risk of injury especially when acted upon by an outside force, such as a weight.

To ensure my patients are using the core properly I get them to “engage,” or turn on, his or her core. I then determine which muscles are stiffened and which are soft. Ideally I want to feel active muscles the entire way around the torso pushing outward into my hand, which gives them the “hoop-like” activation I mentioned earlier. With the muscles properly engaged and the spine in the neutral position you are ideally positioned to handle loads put on the spine. You can think of the core muscles as an internal weight belt. Also, remember that while “pulling in” the abdominal muscles to flex them may give you that sweet washboard look, it is the pushing out activation of the muscles that gives you the hoop-like strength and stability for performance and injury prevention.

Hope this helps you lift heavy for a long time and keep that core and spine of your’s strong!

Benjamin McNutt DC