Do you really understand how to use your core muscles for riding? When your coach asks you to use your core, do you really know how to do that? Don’t worry, you’re not alone!
The core is probably one of the most misunderstood areas of sports biomechanics.
Everyone seems to have their own ideas around what encompasses the core, how to train it, and how it applies to equestrian disciplines. This article will help you understand your core better using the analogy of the “Core Box”.
The core is a vague umbrella term. It is akin to people referring to your ‘glutes’, when in fact there are quite a few different gluteal muscles that act on the pelvis and hip. Similarly, there are a lot of different core muscles that work in synergy with each other.
In it’s basic form, the core simply refers to the musculoskeletal system of the trunk- including the pelvis, spine, and scapulothoracic region along with all the layers of muscles and fascia.
To simplify the core for equestrian riders it is helpful to imagine your core like a box. In order for a box to be stable, each side of the box must be strong.
Inside the box is your lumbar and thoracic spine (middle and lower back vertebrae and surrounding ligaments). This is your passive structure. The only thing that provides you control of this passive structure is your active control system which comprises of your muscles and nervous system.
The muscles are what creates the sides of your box. They include:
When these muscles activate in a coordinated fashion during riding, they provide core stability for the trunk/spine (in other words, the box is stable during movement). From this stable centre, the body is provided a solid foundation for efficient muscle contraction and movement of the appendages (arms and legs).
The points below outline the common defining themes of core stability.
There are layers of muscles around the core box. Generally, when physiotherapists refer to the core muscles, it is the deeper layers of muscle that are of interest since they provide the segmental control essential for core stability. They include:
Bottom of box: Pelvic floor muscles
The pelvic floor muscles line the base of the pelvis and are predominantly used for pelvic organ support, bladder and bowel control, and sexual function. However, they also play a role in responding appropriately to changes in abdominal pressure. The pelvic floor must be strong and contract appropriately to help support the bottom floor of the core ‘box’ during exercise.
Sides & Front of box: Transverse Abdominus Muscle
The transverse abdominus is the deepest abdominal muscle layer and is involved in producing the movements of rotation, flexion, and lateral flexion of the trunk. It is often referred to as the corset muscle, as contraction of this muscle narrows and flattens the abdomen, with it’s fibres running transversely around the sides like a corset. It also assists in stabilising the spine before arm and leg movement.
Top of box: Diaphragm
The diaphragm contracts to increase intrathoracic volume during inhalation and pushes the abdominal organs down. Whilst primarily used for respiratory function, it also assists in stabilising the spine by causing an increased intra-abdominal pressure. Adequate diaphragmatic activation is necessary for good trunk control. Usually when one holds their breath, they are not activating the rest of the box sufficiently, and will place unnecessary pressure bearing down on the pelvic floor. Furthermore, good diaphragmatic breathing can allow better transverse abdominus activation. To put it simply, if you are not breathing well, the rest of your core box cannot function appropriately.
Back of box: Multifidus
The Multifidus muscles are very important muscles that extend nearly the entire length of the spinal column and are involved in producing the movements of extension, lateral flexion, and rotation of the spine. The mutlifi span three joint segments at each segmental level. The stiffness and stability makes each vertebra work more effectively. It also assists in stabilising the spine before arm and leg movement.
Now that you know what the core muscles are, the basic anatomy, the analogy of the box, and the importance of core stability….now you need to train it! A rider core stability program can have a significant effect on rider symmetry and consequently provide an important method for reducing asymmetrical loading and improving both human and equine performance.
This is a whole other topic and is covered in another blogpost (how to activate core muscles for horse riders).
The following points are the key takeaways from the information above.