Updated: Feb 23
If your body is an 'X', your core is the center. And your core, like an onion, has layers.
On the outside, you’ve got your 6 pack. That’s layer most familiar to most people. But it’s not the layer that is responsible for creating stability through your torso or allowing stuff to enter and exit your body (pee, babies, use your imagination here). Your 6 pack is pretty (potentially- I'm not speaking personally😉) and it helps your spine flex (like when you sit up straight from lying down).
1. Your core is a Powerhouse
On the other hand, the innermost layer, the deepest layer of the core that most people tend not to think about (until they NEED to), is your body’s Powerhouse.
Just like a house, it has a roof (the diaphragm), walls (the innermost abs and multifidus) and a foundation (the pelvic floor- the muscles at the base of your pelvis). They work together in a coordinated and reflexive manner to do a lot of things, including keeping you dry and providing the stable platform off of which your body can generate powerful movements.
Your body has a few different ways to generate stability and power through the torso. They’re all managed by your breath and they all rely on the integrity of your Powerhouse.
A strong Powerhouse leads to powerful movements.
If the integrity of you core is compromised, the stuff you do with your arms and legs will be less powerful.
2. Your Core is a Piston
How should all of this work?
On inhale, your diaphragm contracts downward and creates pressure in your abdomen (like filling a balloon with air); this pressure stabilizes your spine. On exhale, your diaphragm contracts upwards and your pelvic floor and innermost abs also contract. The contraction of your pelvic floor and abs create stability on exhale.
As you inhale and exhale, your whole inner core unit, let’s call it a canister now, moves up and down. Like a piston. Creating stability over the entire breath cycle. Driving the powerhouse. See how this all ties together??
3. Your Core is a Pop Can
The pressure that builds inside your abdomen when you breathe or do a physical task, creates stability around your spine and is not unlike the pressure that supports the flimsy walls of a coke can.
When the can is in good shape, those thin aluminum walls are STRONG. You could stand on a full can of pop and it would hold your weight.
On the other hand, if you nicked the can? Well, you’d probably have a sticky explosion. And then you’d find that the can is super easy to crush.
Your core canister has a few places that are susceptible to leaking pressure.
The most relevant for pregnant and postpartum folks are the connective tissue in between the 6 pack muscles (the Linea Alba) and the outlets in the pelvic floor (urethra, vagina, anus).
When you exert yourself, your body creates pressure in your abdomen to help stabilize your torso. To create a stable platform to work off of.
Your pelvic floor and innermost abs should reflexively contract to accommodate spikes in pressure and create that stability. When these muscles contract, they support these vulnerable spots in your core.
As your uterus grows larger, it becomes more difficult for your diaphragm to contract downwards. A lot of people will begin to lose the diaphragm-driven, coordinated piston-like breathing pattern. Instead, they'll start breathing into their upper chest and shoulders.
As you lose coordination within your inner core, your body will still create pressure during activity, but now your pelvic floor and abs will not reflexively contract to counter it. The pressure will find all those vulnerable, leaky spots and try and get out. And over time, this chronic pressure could lead to stuff like prolapse or a larger diastasis recti. (All pregnancies result in some degree of diastasis recti, but that's another discussion for another day.)
A leaky core is a less powerful core. Let's talk about how we can proactively minimize leaks and actively rehab and retrain postpartum.
Cool, so what does this mean for me?
1. If you are pregnant and you’re lucky enough to NOT be experiencing any signs or symptoms of pelvic floor woes (leaking, pelvic pain, pressure etc), you can score a huge advantage by proactively prehabbing your breathing patterns.
2. If you are postpartum, rehab your breathing and pelvic floor BEFORE you get back to your exercise or sports.
Your core is your Powerhouse. Its foundation is your pelvic floor. You wouldn’t (knowingly) build a fancy house on a cracked foundation. Don’t try building full body strength before investing in your pelvic floor and core. You’ll just end up needing to tear down that fancy house to re-pour the foundation.
Take my word. Please.
3. If you’re leaking or feeling a lot of pelvic pressure, make an appointment with your friendly neighborhood pelvic floor physical therapist. Then, start by retraining your breathing. You have agency to intervene and improve your own breathing and core function even before you have access to a professional.
Want to know how to do this? I’ve put together a DIY guide to take you through the process step-by-simple-step.
PS: It was fun to tie together all my favorite analogies to write this post. But I didn’t come up with them all by myself. Here are the credits for the various analogies I used:
The body is an X --> Original Strength
The innermost core as a powerhouse --> Janette Yee
The Piston Breathing concept --> Julie Wiebe
The innermost core as a soda can--> Mary Massery
Check these folks out and give them some love.
Keep Learning! More Stuff by Me:
My mission is to make sure that having a baby is not a reason why you can’t do all the things.
Contact me if you have questions about exercise or pelvic health pertaining to pregnancy or postpartum. I work with people locally (Seattle's Eastside: Redmond, Bellevue, Kirkland and surrounding areas) and online to develop personalized pregnancy and postpartum personal training plans. I also offer labor support (doula services) within the greater Seattle-Metro Area.