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The “core” is such a hot topic these days. Is it abs, trunk or back? A combination of all of those? Strong core muscles keep your spine healthier, yet there is a lot of confusion as to exactly what those muscles are.

There are two kinds of muscles in your trunk and spine. There are the muscles you can see, or the vanity muscles, such as the rectus abdominis (a.k.a. “six pack” muscles). There are also the strong back muscles that run parallel to the back of the spine called the erector spinae. The muscles you can see are power-based muscles that move you and allow you to lift things.

The other muscles are muscles you can’t see. These muscles are small, deep and are endurance-based muscles that function to control how the spine moves and are protective of the spine when functioning properly. These muscles include the multifidi, transverse abdominis and rotator muscles of the trunk.

The interesting fact about all these muscles is that they respond very differently to injury, overstress or deconditioning. The muscles you can see respond to pain by becoming stronger and tighter. That’s why when you exercise especially hard or spend the day working in the yard that you might feel stiffer the next day. However the muscles you can’t see respond by shutting down and ceasing to work. If these muscles are left to themselves they will grow smaller and weaker.

Through a series of short articles I will offer information on these mysterious core muscles – what they are, how they work, how to exercise them properly and also address the question many people have that answers the question, “I am very active, why does my back still hurt?” In my next post I’ll bring you more information about why it’s essential to train these small core muscles, and also why strengthening them helps protect you from lower back pain.

Chris Dollar, DPT, PT, FAAOMPT is a clinical specialist physical therapist and Coordinator of Clinical Education for OrthoCarolina. His area of practice focus is in the evaluation and treatment of spinal conditions.

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