As this century turned, the concept of core and core massage became a thing for both the massage and movement worlds.
It suddenly became imperative to awaken, strengthen and know about your core. Since then, no small amount of ink has been spilled to explain and expand what core is and why it is important.
The focus especially has been the transversus abdominis, with the co-contracting pelvic floor often added. More recently the diaphragm is thrown in.
Some expand the concept to include the whole balloon around your guts: the muscles and membranes lining the abdomino-pelvic cavity.
The core has been termed the powerhouse in some Pilates schools, recognizing the lower abdomen as the source of both spinal stability and functional power in the limbs.
Of course, the center of gravity (read: hara, or dan tien from Asian martial arts)is housed within the transversus’ circle, so there’s some ancient and modern agreement here: Power derives from our belly center.
What Do Clients Need?
I first heard the word core when I studied with Ida Rolf, PhD, way back in the ’70s, but her concept was a little different: She contrasted core with sleeve—think of the copper in a wire as its core, and the rubber insulation around it as sleeve—so generally the muscles in the middle of the body were core muscles.
But Rolf’s definition of core was elusive.
She could define the core of the shoulder (the inner stabilizing muscles and the rotator cuff) versus the sleeve (traps, lats, pects and delts), and within the hour define the core as muscles attaching to the spine and the sleeve as everything else, including the entire shoulder.
Latterly, she was said to have stated, “Core is whatever we cannot live without.”
Great food for thought, but what if we looked for an anatomically specific definition of core, one that helps us know where our clients need:
1. Waking up. In other words, to restore the full kinesthesia and interoceptive feeling and movement to the body’s center line;
2. Relaxation. Many of our worried well clients maintain excess chronic tension in these core muscles; and
3. Tissue release. Most of these muscles are so unused that they are fuzzed up with their neighbors and need to have glide restored between adjacent tissues.
Let us explore this elongated definition of core, and review techniques recommended to awaken and integrate these essential structures. What we are going to call core or the core line appears in the Anatomy Trains book as the Deep Front Line.
Readers can look there for more techniques and detailed explanation, or visit anatomytrains.com look for the webinar titled, “The Deep Front Line: A New Concept of Core” in the store.
Begin in the Foot
Our core begins deep under the arch with the insertions of the tendons from the lower leg, especially tibialis posterior.
To find its insertion, feel just under the inside arch of the foot, just underneath and forward of protrusion of the navicular bone you can feel a bit over an inch in front of your tibial malleolus on the inside of your ankle.
This point will respond to a soft-but-energy-rich touch that is held, and also to a more firm and direct fascial release. Giving attention to this spot will reverberate up the entire line, and it is a great place to start your client’s tour of their core.
Flight Risk in the Lower Leg
The tibialis and the long toe flexors live in the deep compartment under the soleus but behind the tibia and fibular and interosseous membrane that straps them together.
Chronic tension in these muscles is often what prevents the yogi from getting his heel down in downward dog. Small but powerful, these muscles also frequently contain the repressed desire to run or flee—the flight part of the fight-or-flight response.
To awaken these muscles, insinuate your fingertips behind both bones of the lower leg. This is easy with the tibia; the inside edge of the shin bone is readily accessible.
The fibula on the outside is a little harder to find, but if you start low, just above the malleolus, you will be able to stay with it even as it disappears into the meat of the soleus and fibularii muscles.
With your fingertips right behind the bones, bring your elbows wide and pinch them together to get the tissues just behind the bones (not the soleus and gastrocnemius on the surface). Have the client strongly and slowly dorsi- and plantar-flex the ankle to move the muscles under your touch.
Although it may feel stretchily painful to the client at first touch, a few times going through the movement will ease the fascia, restore circulation, and allow glide between these muscles and adjacent structures.
Repeat this technique all the way up the lower leg to the knee, staying right behind the edges of the two bones as you go. If it crosses into painful, slow down, be gentle and feel your way a little deeper next week.
Deeper Grounding in the Inner Thigh
The next track of this line, the adductors of the inner thigh, are a socially difficult place to work, but not a place to ignore.
This large triangular group of muscles run from the bone you can feel just above the inside of your knee to the long line of bone that runs from your pubis to your ischial tuberosity.
Addressing these muscles biomechanically is a complex task because they interact not only in adduction, but in hip flexion, extension and rotation, as well as pelvic stabilization.
For now, it is simply important to include this area in the body image.
Using good draping practices, learn to work here with confidence, spreading and opening the tissues that lead from the inner knee to the groin in the front, and up beside the hamstrings to the sitting bones in the back.
These muscles connect to the pelvic floor, so you can affect up into that part of the core from below when you contact these muscles.
These muscles can also link to emotional material from unfortunate sexual experiences to birthing scars to the suppressed feeling of impotent rage. (The 3-year-old who isn’t getting what he wants.)
When these muscles are released, the client often reports an increased sense of connection and grounding. It is definitely worth your while to get over any hang-ups and learn to work confidently within the inner thigh to restore its feeling and function.
Psoas: The Root of the Breath
The femur looks like the number 7, and on the inside corner of that 7, under the adductors, lies the strong lower attachment of the psoas (along with pectineus and iliacus, all part of what we could call the psoas complex).
These muscles cross the front of the hip, an area that has to open if we are to reach a postural maturity.
We now have an ever-increasing library of ways to treat the psoas complex, from Liz Koch’s gentle core awareness training to the pin-you-to-the-wall methods of the heirs of Rolf.
It is arguable that these guy-wires are the most important for lumbopelvic stability, and that in modern sedentary humans they need some waking up.
This myofascial complex also reaches all the way up to the diaphragm and has a profound effect on easing the breath (or, far too often, drags on the breath).
It is beyond our scope here to lay out psoas treatment in detail. It can relate to gait, a neutral pelvis, SI joint stability and lumbar function, as well as rib cage position and the breath; however, the ability to find, awaken and finally create dynamic responsiveness through the whole complex is definitely worth the time required to learn.
Treatment of the last two tracks of this long inner anatomy train do not lend themselves to a quick explanation, but let’s include them in our tour.
The Heart of the Ribs
The next part of our expanded core is the mediastinum, which is all the connective tissue under the breastbone, between the lungs and around the heart. When this tissue retracts it can affect everything from the circulation to the all-important vagus nerve.
“I’m a massage therapist, not a werewolf or an endothoracic surgeon, how can I work on the tissues inside the chest?” you might ask.
It is a bit woo-woo-energetic at first, but with one hand laid on the front of the sternum and another under the spine and ribs behind the heart, you can feel into and release the tissue deep within the chest around the organs.
This can have a deep radiating effect to the breath, the shoulders and the neck. Spend some time with it, or accelerate your sensitivity and precision by taking some classes in the Visceral Manipulation Jean-Pierre Barral, DO, or Asian abdominal massage.
The Visceral Voice
The top of the Deep Front Line—this new core we are defining—is the anterior cylinder of the neck and the most articulate muscle of the body, the tongue.
Massage therapists tend to stay away from the hyoid muscles, the larynx and the tongue, which leaves a big opportunity for those with sensitive hands and an ear for the voice.
Becoming more familiar with working in this area—the floor of the mouth and the jaw muscles as well—is so helpful to those with expression issues, repressed emotions or a history of adverse childhood experiences.
To learn more about how important this area is to our neurological balance and sense of ourselves, explore the polyvagal theory of Stephen Porges, PhD, or take specialized classes from a speech therapist or the like.
To Learn More
I recommend the following areas and authors to expand your understanding of the expanded core:
• Core: Follow the research of Paul Hodges, PhD; Priscilla Barker, PhD; and Andry Vleeming, PhD.
• Structural Integration: The books of Ida Rolf; John Smith’s books on structural integration; or Anatomy Trains, by Tom Myers.
• Neurological balance: Steven Porges, PhD’s polyvagal theory; Peter Levine, PhD; plus the new research on interoception.
• Ways of working: Liz Koch, Jean-Pierre Barrall, DO; Robert Schleip, PhD; and Tom Myers.
Remember the Inner Core
The myofascial core that runs from our mouth to the inner arch is connected continuously and is totally interactive.
The arches affect the pelvic floor affects the breath affects the head posture and back again.
While it’s fine to focus your session on specific areas like the arches, the hip, transversus and the breath, we do well to keep this whole inner core, both your and their Deep Front Line, in mind as we work.
About the author:
Thomas Myers is the author of Anatomy Trains (Elsevier 2001, 2014) and co-author of Fascial Release for Structural Balance (North Atlantic, 2010). Myers has authored over 100 articles and 50 video programs on anatomy, the fascial network and postural manual therapy. Myers and his faculty offer continuing education for a variety of manual therapists worldwide, and professional certification in Anatomy Trains Structural Integration.