The Trunk and the Core
The trunk or thoracic region of the spine and rib cage is a commonly misunderstood area of the body. It must be mobile enough to allow for breathing (respiration) while at the same time provide the stability to pick up a child or generate enough dynamic force to swing a golf club. It serves as a base of support much like a pillar. The upper and lower limbs move in concert with this base of support and relay information through it. The pillar works optimally when the ribcage (thorac) is situated vertically over the hips (pelvis). This is called centration, or neutral alignment. Maintaining centration of the pillar is key to establishing proper breathing patterns as well as limb control.
There are two sets of muscle groupings responsible for maintaining this centered position. The first and deeper set connects directly to the spine, ribcage, and pelvis, and are primarily responsible for the stability and control of the pillar. These are called the inner unit. These muscles are connected through fascial layers that blend into the ligaments and joints themselves and connect directly to the bones. This intimate relationship allows the inner unit to have very specific control over the joints.
What Makes Up the Deep System?
The deep myofascial system is comprised of the transversus abdominus, multifidi, pelvic floor and diaphragm. Working collectively in a “feed forward” manner the muscles contract to anchor the ribs, spine and pelvis so that movement can take place through the recruitment of the second set of muscles, the superficial or outer system.
What Makes up the Superficial System?
While the superficial system is primarily responsible for movement of the pillar, it also assists in as stabilizing or helping the inner unit. It’s necessary for lifting or for support when your center of gravity is challenged beyond what your inner unit can control. In contrast to the inner unit the superficial system is fascially connected to form chains of muscle that connect multiple joint segments. These chains generate the force production necessary for movements like throwing a ball or running. They are responsible for movement of the trunk and limbs. Examples of the superficial systems include the anterior and posterior oblique chains.
The problem arises when the muscles of the inner unit do not function as they should. When this happens, the outer unit muscles must work overtime creating compensations which show up in the posture, breathing, and movement dysfunction. The deep and superficial systems need to work together so that proper alignment or centration of the trunk and hips can happen. Without this coordination, posture will breakdown and along with it, functional movement.
How Does This Happen?
There are several reasons why this area can become dysfunctional. One reason could be that your central nervous system never developed optimally. Basically, you were never taught how to move correctly growing up. Research shows the posture your parents exhibited often manifests itself in your own posture, as they served as the example for your own patterning.
Another reason could be the chronic shortening of certain muscles due to injuries or microtraumas. When a muscle becomes injured, it can become reflexively shortened. This, along with scar tissue and adhesions, can limit the mobility of the surrounding structures or alter the alignment of the joints. Emotions and anxiety can also reflexively shorten muscles, impacting posture. An example of this can be seen in the muscles around the neck when someone is sad or depressed: the shoulders hunch forward while the head bows down.
Finally, establishing learned movement patterns that act in direct opposition to how we are intended to move can impact our natural range of motion. The ribcage and thorax are meant to be mobile and to rotate. How often do we see people in the gym intentionally perform exercises which force the trunk into a fixed position while moving their arms and legs around it? Barbell squats, deadlifts, bench presses, lat pull downs, etc. — all examples of this.
Yes, There is a Solution!
- Recognize which muscles are responsible for proper breathing and learning how to engage them (diaphragmatic breathing).
- Increasing the mobility of the trunk by releasing the overactive muscle groups to reinforce neutral body positioning.
- Coordinate breathing with functional movement patterns seen in everyday life.
How to Assess?
Lie on your back with your knees bent at 90 degrees and your feet flat on the ground shoulder width apart. Bring your arms up parallel to your shoulders bent at 90 degrees with your fingertips touching the ground. Breath in deeply through the nose for a count of 2 and breath out through your mouth for a count of 4. Try to simultaneously contract your abdominal wall while breathing in and out. Repeat several times.
- Did your shoulders shrug or did your head tilt back?
- Did you notice your ribcage lift up or clavicle elevate as you took a breath in?
- Did your abdominal wall draw in or hollow at any point?
- Were you unable to efficiently coordinate the contraction of your abdominal wall while breathing in or out?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you tested positive for this common posture problem and you’ll want to pay attention to what comes next and watch the accompanying video on how to correct it.
Simple Corrective Methods
Correcting Overactive Muscle
Because we move in patterns, our bodies favor the use of certain muscles groups over others. This is no different for the muscles which help us breath. When the secondary breathing muscles overwork they become tight, short, and inflexible. These are the muscles that we’ll want to lengthen via self myofascial release then follow it with static stretching.
Below are the muscles we’ll want to focus on for chest breathing.
- Rolling or self-applied pressure using self-myofascial release for 30-60 seconds each
- Stretch or lengthen each for 30-60 seconds each
- Latissimus Dorsi
Correcting Underactive Muscles
As mentioned above, pain in the body is commonly caused when how we move forces certain muscles to work overtime while other muscles become lazy and don’t want to function. We’ll need to wake up these lazy muscles through isolated strength movements. The diaphragm and transverse abdominus are often the lazy guys in this scenario.
- 2 sets on each muscle group 10-15 reps using a slow opening of the muscle, isolated hold at the bottom of the movement, followed by a controlled shortening of the muscle.
- 3D Breathing for the Inner core (diaphragm, transversus abdominis, internal obliques, multifidus, pelvic floor)
- Oblique crunches
- Split stance band rotations
Now that you know which muscles are typically underactive and overactive, let’s put it all together for you. Watch the video HERE for a step-by-step breakdown on how to target each of these areas. Before you get started make sure you have a foam roller, stability ball and exercise band handy.
Start off by applying the techniques three times a week and build from there. Every so often reassess your posture and see how far you’ve progressed. Soon you’ll start to see noticeable changes in your body position and mobility.