Core stability, core training, core strength – just what’s it all about!

This week I’ve been live streaming on my Viva Pilates facebook page talking about spinal health and back care. We’ve gone through what the spine does, how the double S shape came about and how to use positive mindset to help you move forward. Tonight though I was discussing the world of core stability.
As a Pilates teacher I get many people referred to me to work their core because they have had back pain. Okay that’s great that they are coming to see me but I want to try and get us away from always thinking about the core when it comes to reducing back pain because many people still associate the core with their abdominals.
Why is it we think it is weak abdominals that caused our back pain? You can walk, sit, stand, etc, your abdominals are working otherwise you would crumble into a heap on the floor. How tense do you really want them to be? And why is it specifically these muscles that have ruined your back?
So let’s look at a shortened version of the google definition of core stability which is the capacity of the muscles of the torso to assist in the management of good posture and balance, especially during movement. We then could ask what is good posture because if you are stood still that is only representative of that moment in time, it’s not your moving posture and is it a good thing to always be lengthening your spine as you move. Lengthening your spine for example as you rotate actually compromises the movement going against what your spine actually wants to do which is shorten, doing a ‘screw down’ feeling (Franklin Method).
Different practices will argue what muscles are relevant when it comes to core training. Some training, pilates included, tells us to concentrate on activation of the transversus abdominus to improve our core strength. We also hear about the multifidus, internal and external obliques too as stabilisers. Others talk about hip flexors, hamstrings, quadratus lumborum, etc. Already we have differences of opinion. Do we really want to be thinking about the muscles though? Over activation of any muscle does not help fluid movement.
Your body is one giant mesh of connective tissues with muscles, ligaments, tendons supported by your skeleton. To think in parts or just muscles isn’t effective for training and trying to reduce back pain.
This over contraction of muscles that is very conscious ie. squeeze your gluts, draw in your stomach is making yourself more rigid and over riding your normal motor skill communication.
As an aside, this last month or so in our pilates sessions we have been looking at moving from a completely relaxed state. Not creating any pre-tension before movement, just letting our bodies move. For some this has been an amazing change in their movement and has also been applied by one lady to her horse riding lessons where keeping more relaxed on the horse, created much better results and communication between horse and rider.
Psychological and psycho social factors have a huge impact on back pain so these must be considered first before you embark on a movement programme. Exercise is then a brilliant way to improve your body’s movement but always always remember technique is vital for progress. If you want to lift heavy weights (which is not what you have to do to improve your back care by the way) then do not move too soon to lifting too heavy as you will add further muscle imbalance and possibly wind up over tensing the back and compressing your spine too much to create more back pain in the long run.
Hopefully, gone are the days of pull in your belly, zip it up, flatten your back to the mat. Deliberately putting your spine into flexion by pressing it into the mat or flexing your lower back in squats, etc, makes it vulnerable when it comes to movement.
The spine is a marvellous piece of engineering. Mobility, flexibility and has the ability to deal with load. I think taking an approach that helps you deal more with core stiffness might be a better way to think about core training. We want muscle tone in balanced proportions around our body rather than creating rigidity. As your back detects increased load the discs will naturally stiffen/tense against the load so we need to be careful we don’t over ride an already amazing system of communication by forcing ourselves to brace and over tightening our centre.
Here is some interesting info from Stuart McGill, a well known back expert:-
‘if the spine is under load, it is best not to move it – keep it stiff. ‘
‘if the spine must flex such as a strongman event competitor lifting an atlas stone, the spine is stiffened in an isometrically flexed spine posture. The stone is hooked by thighs, arms and pectoralis muscles as the spine curls over the stone. The spine does not move as the motion is focused about the hip joints until the final ‘hoik’. So spine is flexed under load but does not move’
This is the key thing, even though the spine is flexed under load, it does not move, it is stiff. To allow your spine to combine load with motion as in flexion repeatedly could injure your discs and collagen so maybe it’s time to re-think how often you do sit ups – moving into and out of flexion with load again and again and the speed with which you do this!
As is always the case when it comes to exercise variety is the spice of life and remember stress, being over weight, hormone fluctations – there are many other factors affecting your spinal health that will need considering if you are suffering with back pain so let’s move away from the focus of your core and look at the whole of you, the holistic approach.
Have a great day – would love to hear from you so do get in touch, comment.