If you’ve ever been coached or taken a fitness class of any kind, you’ve almost certainly heard the phrase, “engage your core.”
But unless you’ve got a strong fitness, yoga, or dance background, that instruction might be really difficult to follow. What does “engage your core” mean, anyway? Does that mean flex and try to make a six-pack? Does that mean suck in my stomach? Puff it out? Make a curve with my low back, or flatten it out and tuck my butt under / pelvis forward?
“Engage your core” is an extremely vague phrase, and difficult to visualise. So we’ll start with some anatomy, and then do some exercises that will let you demonstrate to yourself the actual muscle contraction desired, and what that feels like.
When trainers refer to core strength, core stability, or the muscles of the core, people sometimes automatically picture six-pack abs. In fact, while not an anatomical term, “core” more generally refers to a big list of muscles extending from your butt to your shoulders – basically your entire trunk, excluding your arms and legs. It’s a three-dimensional group of muscles that stabilises your body during movement or exertion, and holds all your internal organs from falling out (luckily, that last part is engaged without us having to think about it).
For the purpose of keeping us safer and stronger during most roller derby & cross-training work, when we talk about our core, we are generally referring to a subset of this full-torso umbrella term. For roller derby, the key components of our “core” that we want to recruit and strengthen are the inner muscles on our front (anterior) side from our ribs down to our pubic bones, the muscles of the hips and bum, and the muscles of our lower and middle backs.
Let’s talk about those six-pack abs for just a second (and then forget about them forever!). Those muscles are called the rectus abdominis, and every one of us has a “six pack.” It may just be a little hard to see under a layer of normal, healthy, human tissue necessary for our survival (and sometimes also a product of our enjoyment of actual, liquid six-packs). For our purposes, the ‘abs’ are basically pure vanity, and they do very little to make us stronger or better roller derby players.
Instead, we need to focus our energy on the all-important transverse abdominis (TVA for short) – the layer of muscle underneath the rectus abdominis and obliques, that stretches from our hip bones to our ribs, and from front to back. TVA is complemented by the oblique muscles, and we need those to be strong and stable for all the lateral movement and power generation necessary for our sport.
Most of us have pretty strong low back muscles, so why do we feel pain in our low backs when we are skating in a pace line or doing endurance laps?
For most humans, including roller derby athletes, the anterior core muscles (transverse abdominis, internal and external obliques) and the bum muscles (gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus) are weaker than they should be to support normal activity, and much weaker than needed for intense physical effort like skating or jumping. When we can’t effectively recruit the abdominal and glute muscles to help stabilise our body, it basically forces the back muscles to work overtime, and then they get tired and crabby.
The best way to reduce that low back pain, therefore, while also creating incredible strength and stability to help your every single other movement in derby and in life (I’m not exaggerating!) is to work on effectively recruiting, and then strengthening, your abdominals and glutes. (Stay tuned for a whole pre-hab on glutes coming soon… hooray, butts!)
How to Engage Your Core (and then how to make it stronger)
In the video below I will walk you through a couple of simple exercises to help you learn the feeling you should get when engaging your transverse abdominis (TVA) muscle. Once you’ve become acquainted with those muscles and the feeling of engaging them, you’ll be ready to try the strengthening exercises that follow!
Here’s the drill. This entire sequence will take you just under 10 minutes to complete.
Meet your TVA: Isometric contraction – 3 x 8 seconds.
Strengthen your TVA:
- Dead Bug x 60s
- Sexy Cat / Angry Cat x 60s
- Bicycles x 60s
- Plank-Ups x 60s (or ab-leg lifts if you have an upper body injury)
- V-sit progression x 30s each variation, with rests.
- Plank x 30s front, 30s each side.
- Balance out front & back: Bird Dogs x60s
- Cobra x 30s
- Hip flexor lunge stretch x 30s each side
When should you do these exercises?
As a minimum, I recommend including two 8-counts of the activating exercise (the isometric contraction) and dead bug for 30-60 seconds prior to every session of on-skate training or off-skate bodyweight training! This will ensure your TVA is activated and engaged prior to the work you’re about to ask it to do. As an option, you can also include sexy cat / angry cat for 30 – 60s as well, because it helps warm and loosen your spine.
I do not recommend doing the full sequence before working out or skating, however. You need your core muscles to be strong and available to you, not tired. So save the full sequence for after practice or workouts, or on its own when you’ve got a free ten minutes in front of the telly.
As I mention in the video, if this video has helped uncover some weakness you didn’t realize you had, or if you’ve suffered from a lot of low back pain or back injuries, I’ve got something you’re going to love. The CoreBuilder program uses a physio ball (aka stability ball) to dramatically ramp up your core strength in short order. Just three or four 25-minute workouts per week will get you some crazy new strength and will reduce that nagging back pain so many of us get when we’re skating our laps! CoreBuilder is available to skaters on our MVP training plan.
Your TVA is where it’s at, and if you can harness its power for the forces of good, you’ll find dramatic new full body strength emanating from your strong core like never before!
Once you’ve learned the feeling of engaging your TVA, take that with you onto your skates. Whenever you’re skating in derby stance, or executing a skill – like a jump, a positional block, a plow stop, or a quick change of direction – you should now be able to feel your TVA being locked down, and making you more effective, stable, and quick.
Question for you!
Which of these exercises was the most challenging for you?? Please leave a note in the comments – I’d love to hear from you!
Now, go forth and engage your core!