There’s been a lot made of the ‘core’ and building your core strength in recent year. Most fitness professionals are keen that you work your core area and many fitness activities focus on core strength with exercises such as ‘the plank’.
Unfortunately, the concept of core strength has been largely misinterpreted. The result is that some exercises may start to do more harm than good and there’s a great deal of misunderstanding about the difference between core strength and core stability.
What do we really mean by core?
If asked where their core is, most people will point to their abdominal area. Those slightly more in the know may add that, it’s the area of the body responsible for protecting the spine.
But there are a lot of muscles in your abdominal area – so which ones form the ‘core’? One of them, some of them or all of them?
Getting to the core of your core
The answer is that there are a number of muscles which form your ‘core’ and are involved in what is called the ‘intrinsic stability’ of the body. No one muscle is more important than the others.
There are numerous muscles which are involved in providing this stability. Deep trunk muscles influence how well we control movement. Larger, more superficial muscles are involved in providing power for movement – such as the gluteal [buttock or “glutes”] muscles, hamstrings etc.
Research into the stability of the spine has shown that people with low back pain have slower “deep muscles” [such as the transverse abdominis – a deep abdominal muscle] compared to their powerful and more external muscles.
The research suggested that this has nothing to do with the strength of the deep muscles. It’s all about how quickly the muscles will work to provide stability.
Still confused? Just think of an elephant v a cheetah
In an imaginary 100 metre race between an elephant and a cheetah there would typically be no contest. However, if we started to give the elephant a bigger and bigger head start, they would eventually be able to beat the cheetah.
The deep core muscles are like cheetahs – they should be coming in quick and fast. The larger, more external muscles of your trunk (excuse the pun) are the elephants. If you practice exercises which make the large muscles stronger and more powerful, without addressing how well the deeper muscles are working – it gives the elephants the head start they need.
But when you do that, you are actually asking the more external muscles to perform most of the work.
The better you get at planking for example [or being a plank?], the stronger those external muscles become. Unless some work is done to address the deep muscle activation, you will almost inevitably create an imbalance and compromise your core stability.
Eventually, what can happen is that those larger, stronger muscles [such as the large low back muscles, the ‘erector spinae’] will start to complain as they’re working overtime!
What exercises should you be doing for your core?
Or perhaps more importantly, what exercises should you stop doing, because they could be doing more harm than good?
Scrapping exercise which requires you to remain in one position for an extended period of time, for the sake of improving your core, is a good start.
Babies don’t plank in their cots (even when we’re not watching). Why? Because this is just not something humans need to do to develop core stability. In fact, most people don’t need any more tension in the trunk area and bracing or practicing excess tension in the abdominal area is a risky thing to do.
If your back muscles are working hard and aching already, why make them work harder by increasing the tension in them? Most people don’t have weak back muscles – if the muscles are tight they are just working too hard!
Take the test
You can test this by lying on your back on a firm surface. If you can place a hand [or more!] between your lower back and the surface, your low back muscles are working harder than they should be, and you are at risk of low back pain! It’s that simple.
The bottom line is that you really need to know what you’re doing and avoid putting unnecessary strain on your back if you want to avoid back pain or other issues.