Athletic Therapy, Biomechanics, Chronic Pain, Conditioning, Equestrian, Motor Learning, Posture

You’re Doing It Wrong: Core Activation

“Tuck your ribs”
“Suck in your tummy”
“Squeeze your abs”
“..belly button to spine”
You’ve probably heard one, if not all of those, at some point in your fitness endeavours. Whether it’s yoga, physiotherapy, pilates, a bootcamp, or just from a trainer or article… those are all common ways for people to describe core “activation”.
Unfortunately, it’s now known that that isn’t the most effective way to activate the core.
In this post I’ll detail some of the latest research on the core, why it’s important to re-educate your core and learn how to activate it the right way, and what it’ll change for your health.
When it comes to spine research, the leader is Dr. Stuart McGill. Why do we care about spine research and biomechanics in an article about the core, you ask? Well- the core has a lot to do with how our spine functions… and how our spine functions has A LOT to do with how we move… and how we move effects our lives. Duh.
McGill was one of the first guys to stand up and prove that the way we’ve thought about core activation and physical health is all wrong. What he showed to be true was that the core muscles (rectus abdominus, external/internal obliques, transverse abdominus, quadratus lumborum, and psoas major) all co-contract to brace and create stability in our torso/core. Generally, the core functions to stop movement. As the core muscles are layered around the torso, when you really think about it, they are designed function as the body’s own back brace. Therefore, one muscle being activated alone can’t really do a lot. The theory of tucking in the tummy, or sucking the abs in leaves out majority of the muscles involved in the core… and really only gives us a small percentage of what we could be using for stability. Not ideal.
McGill introduced the theory/technique of “abdominal bracing” which not only activates ALL the core muscles, it also gets the small muscles in between each vertebrae, and the latissimus dorsi, the large muscle that spans from your shoulder to your lower back involved. This in a sense stiffens the torso, and allows us to develop better movement in our limbs- excellent for most athletes. It also allows us to protect our spine from degeneration and improve our posture.
So how do you re-educate yourself to activate the right way?
While the word “stiffness” may seem counter-intuitive to the idea of creating stability and fluidity, it’s just another word for stability in this case… As riders we need a stable trunk (everything from the shoulders to the pelvis) in order for our hips and elbows to be fluid, and our lower leg to be effective. The active core allows for dynamic stability, which is efficient stability through movement… not becoming rigid and bouncing around in the tack, but instead going with the flow of your horse.
Try this. Hands on your hips so you fingers are slightly pushing into the sides of your stomach. Push the muscles under your fingers out so you can feel them working. Feel how those strong core muscles pop into your hands with the “push out” feeling? Yes, it’s going to feel a little odd. Maybe like you’re holding your breath or holding in having to go to the bathroom. You’re not holding your breath (though it will take practice to breath properly while doing this activation.. old habits die hard), what you are doing is creating a strong, hoop basket like system around your entire truck. I find imagining the feeling of when you’re laughing really hard (so hard your abs hurt… this is a true activation!), or when you’re coughing. This locks in the spine, keeps the torso strong, and is what every rider needs to begin rebuilding their position. 99% of the riders I’ve worked with are new to this activation technique, and the same number almost immediately feel a HUGE difference in their efficiency in the tack. If you have low back pain, this is a must for your tool box.
I have yet to meet someone who knows how to activate their core properly. Most people look at me and say “that’s not the way they said to do it…”. It takes practice and it’s going to feel weird and difficult until you get used to it. But trust me, your horse, your back, your body will thank you for it.
Here’s a great tester for this.
This exercise is called the “bird-dog”, a favourite of Dr. Stuart McGill’s. Here’s him explaining it! Try it out!

As your extending your opposite limbs, are your hips shifting and is your spine collapsing to counter balance? If so.. you’re still doing it wrong!

Focus on pushing the core muscles outwards, feel for that “pop” into your fingers above the hips.. once you get that, the hip shift and the back collapse should dissipate. That’s when you know your core is working for you!

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