The Truth About Core Strength

Last week, in response to the HIIT workouts article I posted, an expert Tai Chi instructor in Italy wrote in a request that I explain more about core education. Most people have heard that core strength can improve back health, but what does that really mean, and how can a person know how to apply it?  

Firstly, if you would like to really go deep into research on this topic, become familiar with the work of Paul Hodges PhD. I can’t think of anyone who has researched this topic more comprehensively, and most of what we think we know about the core comes from his research. While he and his colleagues were the ones to discover the timing and integration of core muscles in relationship to back pain; he later became interested in the relationship of core muscles to breathing, the brain and the immune system. It’s fascinating, and if you want to go deep, he is your resource.  What Paul says is the biggest misconception about core stability is that people assume that “stiffness makes them more stable.” 

So, what does that mean? You know when you lunge in a fitness class and the teacher says, “pull in your core, it will keep you from falling over.”  Well, that’s actually usually true with a linear movement like a lunge, because in that case, stiffness does make you more stable.  Likewise, if you are a heavy weight lifter, you will no doubt have to make yourself very stiff (sometimes even by holding your breath!) and engaging your core to keep your spine from buckling.   But now, if you are an ice hockey player, or you simply want to go for a hike with friends and need good use of your hips and spine- well then, if you try to stiffen by bracing your core, you will lose natural ability to adapt to the changing ground. Also, ironically, you will not feel particularly stable. Interestingly, Jane Brody touched on this with her article today in the NYTimes.

So, why does the notion of “core” in Pilates looks so different than the “core” of Tai Chi? Because it is. Neither is right nor wrong, but the trouble really comes when one strategy becomes applied to all disciplines. For example, if you are a martial artist, you may find that planks make it difficult for you to find your Dan Tien (energy center at the core). Yet, someone who planks a lot may have adapted to finding backup breathing muscles in the back and armpits, and this is how they have come to know or activate their core. And if you are a boxer, your core is no doubt the connecting route between your arms and legs, by means of torque, which looks different than the core of a tennis player, even if both generate power through rotational forces.  

So, you see, you can’t really look at core in a vacuum, your abdominals have a different function for every task, just like every other muscle in the body. Some features of the core allow for movement, some features allow for control, and some allow for whole body “bracing,” and this will always change depending on the task and the training.  But what remains true is that it is your center, and it runs deep. You don’t want to impose too much of our own will by hyper focusing there, otherwise you stand the risk of messing with your own amazing engineering.  If you let your movement influence your musculature, you will be all good.