2 Core Activation Exercises Every Circus Athlete (and everyone else) Should Be Doing

Oh the core, we’ve all heard of it. We all have one. We engage it; we brace it; we draw it back to our spines. Which is correct? Are we turning it on effectively? Or at all?

I’ve written several blog posts that talk about the core musculature (hereherehere) so I won’t go too in-depth in this post, but think of your core as a can: there is a top, sides and a bottom.

And your core is so much more than just your “abs”! There is also deeper core musculature, which is made up of four different “parts”.

Your deep core:

  • Diaphragm (the top of the can)
  • Pelvic Floor (the bottom of the can)
  • Transverse Abdominis (TA or TVA for short, sides of the can)
  • Deep Spinal Stabilizers: multifidus, illicostalis, and longissimus (sides of the can)

It’s worth saying again: the core is so much more than just abs! The only abdominals of your deep core are the transverse abdominis (TA). Sometimes your TA are referred to as your lower abdominals. This is where it gets confusing. Lower abdominals does not mean the region lower than your belly button. Lower when discussing your abs means deeper down from the surface of your skin. Technically though, there aren’t really upper and lower abs in the sense that most people think: you can’t really target or isolate the “abs” below your belly button.

Your superficial core (not snobby, but closer to the surface):

  • Internal Obliques
  • Rectus Abdominis
  • External Obliques
  • **Some consider the Latissiusm Dorsi (or lats) part of the core too, since they are muscles connecting the upper portion of the body to the lower portion of the body. For the purposes of this post, I won’t be including the lats in this discussion.

Since a majority of the core exercises out there in the fitness realm are more focused on the superficial core muscles (your three superficial abs), these muscles tend to be the ones that get stronger. However, since there tends not to be a lot of focus on the deeper core musculature (your TA, diaphragm, pelvic floor and multifidus), these muscles become weak or simply stop being part of the co-contraction intended to  stabilize the spine. (That’s right: all of these muscles should be stabilizing your spine).

Why are exercises for these deeper core muscles not often displayed in magazines, on Instagram or in the news? They’re just not sexy. They don’t create a ‘burn’ in your abs like a plank (which, to be fair, most people don’t think of as sexy), ball pikes-ups, leg lifts or whatever else is being added to the list of ‘5 Core Exercises to Scorch Your Abs!‘ (you know you’ve read it…it’s ok).

Deeper core exercises tend not to feel like you are doing a whole lot of muscle contraction, but tend to feel like a lot more brain power and focus. With that in mind, before you dive into your next challenging training session, add these two exercises to activate your deeper core muscles and prepare them to be part of the core contraction. These exercises will help to remind the deeper core musculature to be doing the work and being an active participant in stabilizing the spine.

(Re)Introduction to Your Deep Core Musculature

As I said above, these two exercise are a great way to begin your warm-up for your fitness or circus training, but really, they can–and probably should–be done every day as a quick 5-minute (re)connection with your body to keep it functioning optimally.

Rest Position

The first exercise is the Rest Position in Pilates. It might sound restful, but in the beginning it may feel like your brain is being so challenged that it is the body part that becomes fatigued.

  • Begin by laying on your back; knees bent and feet flat on the floor
  • Arch and tuck your pelvis a few times to help find your neutral position. There should be a slight space between your low back and the floor.
  • Maintain a neutral spine throughout this exercise.
  • Slowly draw your pelvic floor up and into a light contraction. This is not a squeezing of the anus, but a lifting of the front portion of your pelvic floor. (Best cue I’ve read recently: imagine you’re sucking a smoothie with your vagina as the straw. For those who do not have vaginas, imagine that feeling of lifting as you walk deeper and deeper into cold water). The light contraction of the pelvic floor actually activates the TA. This should not be a bearing down and you shouldn’t feel much of any contraction on the front of your torso. If you feel a good amount of contraction in your lower abdominal region, you are using your obliques. Stop. Relax. Start again and go slowly. It really feels like almost nothing is happening.
  • Once your pelvic floor and TA are engaged, perform 10 lateral breaths with the TA and pelvic floor engaged throughout the 10 breath cycles. If you are not sure how to do lateral breathing I found this article that explains how to perform the breathing technique. You can also check out my video on lateral breathing. I also have a few previous posts on breathing and fitness: herehere.

 Setting the Rib Cage

The second exercise is Setting the Rib Cage… by blowing up a balloon! No really–this will help to set your rib cage down, AKA rib depression. (Maybe work on this one at home for a bit to get the muscle activation if you feel uncomfortable blowing up a ballon in a room with other folx who are training.) The exercise helps activate your external obliques which draw the two sides of the rib cage down and towards one another. I often describe it like this: imagine you are rolling up your yoga mat and creating that first fold under. Or you could imagine burrito rolling: fold the sides in first and then roll. Whatever works for your brain. 

This can be a hard concept and contraction to grasp and that’s why it is very often taught through blowing up a balloon. Rib depression can take some time to get the hang of and may be a bit challenging if you have a breathing dysfunction, thoracic mobility limitations or weak external obliques.

  • Find a balloon.
  • Lie down with feet propped up on a wall so that there is a 90 º angle at your knees and hips.
  • On an exhale press your feet into the wall, contract your glutesand hamstrings to scoop your hips an inch off the floor.
  • Place balloon to your lips.
  • Inhale, then exhale and blow into the balloon, exhaling fully. Repeat. As you blow up the balloon, you want to feel your ribs drawing together and down. If you are unsure, video tape yourself. Your ribs are probably depressing on the exhale. Watching the video while simultaneously remembering the feeling of the ribs drawing together might help you figure out how to activate the external obliques without the balloon.
  • Eventually, you want to be able to find the rib cage depression without the balloon. This will enable you to activate your pelvic floor, TA and draw the ribs into depression for a contracted core and stabilized spine during core exercises or wherever you need to stabilize the spine.

Practice these two exercises as part of your warm-up to help the mind/body connection in sequencing the contraction of your core.

Once you have these mastered–here’s a bonus exercise you can add to train this contraction and stability with movement:

Pilates Abdominal Prep Exercise

As always, please feel free to reach out if you have any questions. And feel free to share this pose with anyone you think will benefit from the information.

Happy Training~~~Theresa

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