Most people think of abdominal muscles when they hear the word core. And while this is partly correct, the deep core muscle team includes the abdominals (the deep transverse abdominals), though it also includes the diaphragm, pelvic floor, and a small muscle group along the spine called multifidus.
The deep core muscles are designed to work as a team to manage pressure in what could look like the arrangement of a soda can. The diaphragm muscle is the top, the pelvic floor muscles are the bottom, and the deep abdominals and multifidus surround the sides of the can. When these muscles are working in harmony, we are not very likely to struggle with symptoms like urinary stress incontinence (leaking with sneezing or jumping), prolapse, and even pelvic pain.
Unfortunately, we cannot investigate these muscles and how well they are working from the outside. But I DO have two tests that you can try to check how YOUR deep core muscles are working. Both tests will give you a good idea of if your deep core muscles are working great or struggling to do their job well. (We also have two videos for each of these core tests that we will link below)
The deep core muscle team is supposed to move as you breathe as a team. With inhale, the diaphragm drops down and so does the rest of the team. With exhale, the muscles should all recoil and lift back up. Things like coughing or blowing up a balloon SHOULD involve ALL muscles of the deep core drawing upward with the effort to support the diaphragm muscle doing its job to move air upward and out.
I recommend doing these tests laying down or reclined first, and then you can try them sitting. All you need for these tests is yourself and a balloon.
The Balloon Test
Take a balloon in one hand and place your other hand softly on your belly to monitor. Take a slow breath in, and then try to blow up the balloon. When doing this A) were you able to successfully blow it up? And B) Did your belly and pelvic floor draw upward and inward or did they bulge?
If they went upward, then your deep core did great! If they bulged outward, this is a sign that your deep core muscles are not working effectively yet as a team. It would be helpful to work with a pelvic PT to resolve this muscle coordination issue.
Remember, this is completely trainable. We’ve had countless patients go from not even being able to blow up a balloon, to being terrific at it, and NOT bulging outward anymore.
The Cough Test
In a reclined or laying down position, rest one hand gently over your belly button. Take a slow belly breath in to prepare, then cough. Take note of what your belly hand did during your cough. Did it bulge outward? Did it draw inward and upward?
If your hand bulged, that is showing you that your core team is not coordinating together and/or your deep core is just not activating quick enough.
If your hand drew inward, this is a great sign that your deep core is in fact, working well as a team and able to manage pressure with quick movements like a cough or light jump.
Getting an idea of what your deep core muscles are doing is the first step. If you find that things are not coordinating well, I would say that starting with working on refining your belly breathing would be a great start. Focus on slow and smooth inhales for 4 counts and exhales for 4 counts. Breath work is AMAZING for uniting these deep core muscles. Secondly, you can adapt and use the tests to build your muscle coordination AND strength if needed. We often have clients practice clearing their throat while on their hands and knees to begin to find this muscle coordination and patterning. For most of our patients, the FIRST goal is to reconnect these muscles so that they may work as a team. If they are weak, we delay adding in any strength work until these muscles are WELL CONNECTED.
Hopefully you have a better idea of how your deep core muscles are working with these two simple and quick tests. Now the challenge is to reach out to us, or a local pelvic PT in your area to help you regain the coordination that you once had. THIS is how we begin to resolve the issues that we see in our clinic.
Here’s to your core health!!
Please note that this information is purely for education and we STRONGLY recommend that you be assessed by a pelvic PT.