These days, everybody talks about training and strengthening the core. People hit the gym with high hopes of creating more core strength, but in many cases end up planking and crunching their way into more pain, compensation, and dysfunction. There is nothing wrong with planks or crunches, but I don’t correlate compensation and dysfunction with a strong core. So the question remains, “What truly defines a strong core and how can one properly train the core to be strong and stable?”
First let’s begin with what constitutes the core. Many well-meaning people who are told they have a weak core begin to work on their abs. Sure, the abdominals are part of the core musculature, but so are the many other muscles that attach to the pelvis. The core is not limited to the abs. In fact, the hamstrings, quadraceps, and gluteals all attach to the pelvis and are therefore, also considered core muscles. If you look at Thomas Myers dissection of the human body below, you can see that the lines of fascia that attach to the core actually connect from the top of the head to the plantar fascia of the feet!
One can train all these muscles, with squats, lunges, twists and planks, but will these exercises actually make the core stronger? A study published through Indiana State University had a group of healthy adults perform these movements and measured their core musculature. The hypothesis was the participants with the strongest cores would score higher on tests of physical performance; however, this was not the case. In fact, they found little correlation between measured core strength and athletic performance, which shook the personal training world, which places a large emphasis on core strength.
So how did the myth of core strength begin? Well, some of the responsibility might lie with Joseph Pilates. He argued that drawing in the stomach and contracting the transverse abdominus (TVA) and pelvic floor demonstrates the correct way to maintain a strong core. In a Pilates class you will often hear “tighten the core” or “engage your abs.” However, how realistic is that? Do you think we were meant to walk around all day engaging and contracting these muscles? In my opinion, people aren’t meant to walk around in a constant state of engagement and rigidity; rather people are meant to move in a relaxed mobile fashion.
Let me give you some examples: If you see a runner who looks tight and rigid, do they look more or less efficient than one who looks relaxed and fluid? Another example is an accomplished martial artist. They can kick, punch or chop things in half while appearing relaxed. How about babies and toddlers? Do you think they walk around engaging their abs? Yet, they typically have very fluid and functional movements
So lets talk about Joseph Pilate’s idea that we need to access, stabilize and strengthen the TVA (transverse abdominus). We are taught in a Pilates class how to find and engage the TVA, however, did you know the man function of the TVA is to compress the abdominal cavity? In other words, the TVA should be used when pushing, such as when you’re birthing a child or having a bowel movement. So unless you plan to poop or go into labor the next time you are training your core, this does not seem like the best approach for gaining core strength.
To dismiss the idea that we all need to draw in our stomachs, one just needs to look at the research of Stuart McGill, one of the leading sources on back pain. He has demonstrated that drawing in the stomach during movement can actually destabilize the spine. When the muscles are brought closer to the spine, it actually reduces stability in the back.
So how CAN we maintain a stronger core and a more natural, relaxed posture? Well, Joseph Pilates had it right when he talked about a “neutral” pelvis. To maintain a strong stable core, the pelvis should be in its neutral position so the relationships of the muscles surrounding the core can be at their resting lengths and work efficiently. This being said, you don’t create neutral by constantly contracting the abs, you create it by re-aligning the load bearing joints, restoring functional spinal curves, practicing optimal diaphragmatic breathing and regaining proper mobility. This will begin to rebalance the muscles surrounding each joint and start to provide more stability. With this increased stability, the core muscles can automatically engage when they are meant to without conscious effort. Furthermore, working upon this more stable frame can now generate true strength rather than compensation and dysfunction.
You may now be questioning what constitutes proper alignment? If you were to build a structure, you would stack each brick one atop another in order to maintain stability such as in the diagram below right? Yet when you look at many people in our society, their head is stuck in a forward position, their shoulders are protracted and rounded, their hips may be forward of the ankle and in many cases there are multiple imbalances side to side. This is no longer a state of strength and stability. If you build a building and align the bricks in this fashion, it wouldn’t take long before the structure fell apart. Think of it like driving a car that’s out of alignment, at some point things begin to wear down.
So to be clear, pain, lack of core strength, and dysfunctional movement can stem from a variety of factors and holding in your abs isn’t going to solve the problem. What causes the pelvis to lose its neutral alignment can differ from one person to the next and which muscles need to relax and which need to engage in order to restore alignment may not be the same for each individual. Just look at the diagram below – do you think the same exercise prescription would apply to each of these body types to reestablish proper alignment? One exercise does not fit all, and each exercise is only as good as the body you bring to it. Planks, crunches, squats, lunges etc. are all GREAT exercises and everybody SHOULD be able to accomplish these movements, but if you perform them on a compensatory body, they may only be adding to pain and dysfunction.
There is no quick fix for better posture and movement, yet it is completely obtainable and within your reach. You can search for the next gadget, class, doctor, or therapist that claims they will fix you; however, don’t be misled. Healthy alignment and posture takes self-awareness, good movement habits, and the proper stimulus to realign the body, which can differ from one person to the next. There is no magic exercise that will re-align every person, but with increased awareness, education, a bit of work, and an optimistic attitude, the solution to regaining proper alignment and movement is completely attainable.
Lisa Decker M.S. CPT, PAS, CES, PES, CAMQ
For more information on how you can begin your journey to attaining an aligned, functional and pain free body, go to www.alignedfit.com or www.egoscue.com or pick up the book “Pain Free” by Pete Egoscue.