As a pilates instructor and biomechanics coach, a big thing I get told a lot by new clients during initial consultations are, ‘I need to strengthen my core muscles’.
Normally they have been told this by a physical therapist (more likely a miss-interpretation of what the therapist was actually saying), or they have done a bit of casual googleing on the internet which has led them to the conclusion that their ‘core’ is ‘weak’ and it needs to be ‘strengthened’.
Stating that a muscle or a group of muscles are ‘weak’ is an over simplification to say the least. How do you know a muscle is ‘weak’ and not just inhibited or in spasm? If a muscle is inhibited or in spasm, the last thing you want to do is ‘strengthen’ the muscle with exercises. Surely that will just reinforce the underlying issue instead of addressing the causes behind why the muscle appears to be ‘weak’ in the first place?
Following this paradigm that there are ‘weak’ muscles and ‘strong’ muscles can eventually lead to injury as the inner mechanics of the body have been ignored. If we want our outer form to be strong, we need to develop inner structural integrity.
But training my core helps my lower back
A common reason to training the core muscles (besides the aesthetics) is to improve the stability of the spine. If someone is suffering from lower back pain, it is a popular belief that the spine is ‘unstable’ and so it needs to be ‘stabilised’ by the muscles that help with stability of the spine = the core muscles… Makes sense right?
Unfortunately the human body is not that simple. Having ‘strong’ core muscles doesn’t automatically result in a pain free lower back or greater spine stability. As a biomechanics coach, before I start working with a client I give them a full head to toe screening. Assessing for any dysfunctions (from a biomechanical perspective) up and down the body. One thing I almost always comes across in these initial screenings are pelvic asymmetry, muscle spasms (muscles around the pelvis), tight nerves (sciatic nerve) and a lacking in appropriate mobility at certain areas of the spine (mainly lower back and mid back).
Taking into consideration the person’s current inner mechanics. If I start straight away with exercising the core muscles, all that person will be doing is reinforcing all those dysfunctions.
By ‘strengthening’ the core muscles, all those issues will be further ‘glued’ together, adding on top of the already existing issues. It’s like building a good looking house under poor, uneven foundations. At some point the structural integrity of the house will run into some issues. When exercising you want to also be taking into consideration your intrinsic biomechanics for the same reasons.
In fact if those issues were dealt with first, the core may be absolutely fine as a result! The disengagement of certain core muscles may have been an end result caused by the mis-alignment of the pelvis and the ‘tightness’ of certain nerves in the first place.
So should I be training my core?
It depends…Even if the pelvis is in good alignment, there are no muscle spasms, no ‘tight nerves’ and the spine can move with healthy range, the core muscles may still need to be looked at. In most cases, it’s more about improving the feedback loop from the nervous system to the core muscles (proprioception), instead of exercising the core in the traditional sense. From there it’s up to YOU how much you train your core and that is down to your health and fitness goals.
I have zero issue with someone wanting to exercise their core muscles. It’s your body and how ever you want to train it (or not train it) is your choice and it’s a choice that should be respected. All I’m saying is it makes sense to be mindful and take into consideration how the body is working intrinsically and how the intrinsic workings will directly influence how we look, move and feel.
How can I start to improve my intrinsic mechanics so I can exercise my core safely?
The pelvis is a great starting point. Below is a link to a short video that gives you a quick and easy way to assess the symmetry of your pelvis (from a biomechanical perspective) and how to perform an anti spasm technique to help with the alignment of your pelvis.
If you would like more information email me at email@example.com
Or contact Rachel from Biomechanics Education at firstname.lastname@example.org
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