In my practice as an Exercise Physiologist and Pilates Instructor, I use core stability theories and exercises every day. Unfortunately, I see many clients that have injured themselves by “working on their core” with the wrong information or damaging instruction. Improper core work can be as harmless as wasting your time, effort and money on a practice that is taking your body backwards rather than functionally progressing. At its most harmful, back pain and injury, separated abdominals, pelvic floor/continence issues, and hernias are just a few of the ailments that can be made worse with an improper use of the core.
With this in mind, I thought it was time to do some serious core stability myth busting. When we start to understand the true definition of core stability, we will be able to choose our activities, instructors, and daily habits more wisely.
Here are 3 Core Stability myths that can wreak some serious havoc on your body. Let go of these myths ASAP for a happier, healthier core.
Core stability mechanisms, in a normal, healthy body, should be automatic. Your Transversus Abodminis (TA), pelvic floor, diaphragm and multifidus (respectively as seen below) work together to dynamically support the spine. These are small, postural muscles that have the ability to turn on and off all day long to bring support to the body.
Unfortunately, it has been shown that people with back pain and women with incontinence have lost this anticipatory mechanism, and the core muscles switch on AFTER the arm moves. This research illustrates that in a dysfunctional core, timing of the core muscles becomes an issue.
This timing problem was commonly solved by telling people to grip their abdominal muscles before movement and constantly “brace” to create support around the spine. Because if those little muscles aren't activating when they are supposed to, shouldn't we consciously activate them while we move?
No! Rather than restoring your body's natural, dynamic function, consciously bracing the abdominals:
- creates tension and compression in the spine (greater wear and tear, risk of disc injury),
- stops us from restoring the proper motor programs. Remember this is supposed to be an automatic process, and we need to enable our bodies to restore their natural ability. Holding tension in the abdominal area (much like a brace) will only weaken the muscles and their ability to function in the way they were intended.
Chronically bracing or "sucking in" the abs can also increase intra-abdominal pressure to a dangerous amount. Imagine a balloon that you squeeze around the middle, where will the contents of the balloon go? The contents or your abdominal cylinder will eventually seek escape, the possible cause of pelvic prolapse, hernias and other pressure related conditions.
So the moral of the story, avoid sucking your stomach in and gripping/bracing your abdominals.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD:
Learn how to isolate the individual muscles of the core, restore proper activation patterns, and work on whole body alignment so your core works automatically. Let your core work for you instead of you working your core.
Forward flexion of the spine (a crunch type movement) can be a valid, functional movement that needs strengthening. Your rectus abdomins and obliques (highlighted below) all play a part in forward flexion, and if you want these muscles to get stronger, than sit-ups or crunches can definitely help.
It is commonly thought that back pain is due to weak muscles, and strengthening the muscles of the torso is the best solution. Yes, there can be weakness and muscle atrophy associated with back pain, and yes, strength can play a part.
But if the big, global abdominal muscles are activated without the help of the true core stabilisers, you can get some serious problems. As stated previously, people in a pain situation often have dysfunctional timing of these core stabilisers. Also remember that these "little guys" are the only muscles that provide individual support to each vertebrae. If you are only activating the big muscles and the little guys aren’t in sync, you can get a shearing affect on the spine, where you slide one vertebrae forward on the others, creating wear and tear on discs and joints.
You can also get a big increase in intraabdomnial pressure, especially if you aren’t breathing properly during your crunches, taking us back to all those pressure related injuries mentioned above (prolapse, hernia, diastasis recti, etc).
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD:
Restore proper breathing and activation patterns to your true core stabilisers before you layer in the big global muscles. Taking time to work on the “little guys” will save you many problems in the future. If in doubt, remember that there are hundreds of whole-body ways to work your “core” without doing a single sit-up.
Getting told to "tuck your tailbone" is a common instruction in gyms and fitness classes, and one of the most damaging in my mind. Our spines were designed with a lumbar curve for a reason; to provide the necessary shock absorption. Reducing your lumbar curve by tucking your tailbone only serves to reduce shock absorption, place more pressure on lumbar discs, and reduce the ability of TA and pelvic floor to operate properly.
Your core stabilisers have been shown to work best in a neutral pelvis position with a restored lumbar curve.
Bear with me folks, we are now going to get a bit intimate with pelvic positioning...
A neutral pelvis is defined as having the ASIS (bony bits that stick out in the front of your pelvis) and pubic symphysis in the same plane relative to something. Check out the photos below; when lying down you have a neutral pelvis when your ASIS and pubic symphysis are in the same horizontal plane relative to the floor (below left). The middle picture illustrates an anterior tilt of the pelvis (where the ASIS is above/anterior to the pubis) which will increase the lumbar curve. The middle shows a posterior pelvic tilt (ASIS is below or posterior to the pubis) which will decrease the curve in the lumbar spine (the action of tucking the tailbone).
Here's the missing link: for ideal posture in standing, you must have your ASIS and pubic symphysis in a vertical plane relative to the vertical leg. The picture below left is how I tend to habitually hold babies, and after a quick look you might suspect a decent lordosis (big lumbar curve). If you only looked at the pelvic markers, my pelvis appears neutral...but in fact, relative to my legs, my pelvis is actually posteriorly tilted and my lumbar is flat, my glutes are tightened and tucking under, and there is increased pressure on my lumbar discs. Telling me to tuck my tailbone to reduce this curve will only make the issue much worse.
Try this simple exercise: Stand how you would normally stand without thinking. See if you can feel where the weight is in your feet. Now back your weight up into your heels and line your pelvis up over the back of the foot, and you will probably notice your pelvis start to untuck (use a mirror if possible and look for a vertical leg). You will get to a point where you feel like your bones are stacked and the load is distributed efficiently rather then "hanging off your joints" to keep yourself vertical. There's a lot more detail to standing posture, but have a play with this and aim for feeling "free and efficient". Nothing tucking or gripping here, and lots of lovely little stabilisers humming along for support!
When in doubt, stick it out (by it I mean your bum). Let’s reclaim awesome glutes, proper lumbar curve, and put our true core muscles in the alignment where they can best work automatically.
If you’ve recently got off the couch/office chair, or if you're recovering from pain, injury, or babies, nurture your body, allow it to heal, and focus on restoration and rehabilitation before pushing marathons and big gym workouts. And when you do progress towards the more intense training or heavier sports, don’t forget that a little corrective exercise can go a long way.
We need to return core stability to a concept that enables our body to become empowered, efficient and easy. Take a few minutes everyday or every workout to reconnect with your breath and your more subtle muscles; here you will find your true core strength.
- Capson A.C., Nashed J., Mclean L. (2011). The role of lumbopelvic posture in pelvic floor muscle activation in continent women. J Electromyogr Kinesiol, 21(1), 166-77
- Hodges P.W, Butler J.W, McKenzie D.K, Gandieva S.C. (1997). Contraction of the human diaphragm during rapid postural adjustments. Journal of Physiology 505, 539-548
- Hodges P.W, Richardson C.A. (1996). Inefficient muscular stabilization of the lumbar spine associated with low back pain. A motor control evaluation of Transversus Abdominis. Spine 21(22) 2640-2650,
- Hodges P.W, Richardson C.A, (1999). Altered trunk muscle recruitment in people with low back pain with upper limb movement at different speeds. Arch. Phys. Med. Rehabil. 80 (9), 1005-1012,
- Hodges P.W, Richardson C.A. (1998) Delayed postural contraction of Transversus Abdominis in low back pain associated with movement of the lower limb. J. Spinal. Disord. 11 (1) 46-56,
- Sapsford R.R., Richardson C.A., Maher C.F., & Hodges PW. (2008). Pelvic floor muscle activity in different sitting postures in continent and incontinent women. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 89(9), 1741-7.
- Smith MD1, Coppieters MW, Hodges PW. (2007). Postural activity of the pelvic floor muscles is delayed during rapid arm movements in women with stress urinary incontinence. Int Urogynecol J Pelvic Floor Dysfunct, 18(8), 901-11.