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Ask the Physical Therapist: Breaking Down Core Anatomy

Q: I have heard that your abs are not your real core. Is that true? Obviously, as a runner I want to have a really strong core.

Your abs are your core – but only a part of it. When we work to achieve a ‘6-pack’, especially if we work out regularly, the muscles we think about include the rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus, and external abdominal obliques. While it’s not wrong to strengthen these superficial or ‘vanity’ muscles, the real core goes much deeper. The ‘real’ core muscles are muscles that basically have a “holding” and protecting function for the spine. They’re small (about the size of your thumb) in the back of your spine, and run from one vertebrae to another. The core muscles in the front of your trunk are about as thick as 15-20 pieces of typing paper and generally lie across the abdomen in a horizontal fashion. (The muscles you can see run vertically.)

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Transverse abdominis muscle

The core muscles prevent too much “wobble” in the spine by providing stability. Think of a tube of toothpaste. Your hand around the end the tube acts like the core muscles of the spine. When you squeeze the tube there is a natural “pushing up” of the toothpaste toward the other end of the tube. In the same way the core muscles “squeeze” the trunk and take pressure off the spine and makes for a happier and well functioning structure.

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Lumbar multifidi muscle

The deeper core muscles are very important in protecting the spine from too much pressure and unhealthy loading that can harm the joints and shock-absorbing discs of the back and it’s very important to strengthen them, even before working on your abs.

Chris Dollar, PT, DPT, is Coordinator of Clinical Education at OrthoCarolina-Eastover Physical Therapy.

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