The Myth of “the Core”

We all know that ideas can take on a life of their own.  Kinda like playing telephone as a kid.  The further you go down the chain, the more garbled the message gets.  This may be the case for the idea that strengthening our core is the primary and most fundamental part of getting strong and fit.

The concept of “the core being everything” was born out of studies that showed that the way we move changes when we have back injury and pain.  And while this is true, it was then assumed that certain muscles in the abdomen were more important than other muscle groups, and a direct correlation was made between strengthening the trunk muscles (the abs) and alleviation of back pain. From that grew the idea that by having a strong and stable core, we would prevent injury.

Now if you are a believer, don’t write me off just yet.  Abdominal muscles are important, I’m just saying the idea has taken on a life of its own, and perhaps, it is a concept that has been taken a bit too far in valuing one set of muscles over another, and has consequently potentially “jumped the shark.”

In working with clients, I’ve found the following, time and time again:

The importance of training reflexive movement:

We have reflexive responses built in, meaning, muscles kick in automatically when needed.  When we constantly “override” that, (using our frontal cortex) by bearing down or over contracting, we mess with our neuromuscular make up.  I’m not saying we can’t bring our awareness to different body parts and learn how to engage them, that is hugely beneficial.  But when we over contract, and bring more attention to certain muscles over others, we introduce an imbalance that wouldn’t otherwise be there.  And that can lead to a whole new set of problems.

Less can often be more:

It’s in our nature to want to leave the gym with the feeling like we are getting something for our efforts.  I get that.  But we have to address the fact that chronically contracting the same muscles, over and over isn’t helpful.  Muscles need to contract AND release in order to get stronger and more flexible.  Kegals are a great example of this.  Women have been encouraged to do a lot of kegals, but there needs to both a contraction and a release of the muscles for us to have strength.  Chronic contraction leads to weak and tight muscles.  Plus, kegals are often done incorrectly.

What exactly are you practicing:

Whatever we practice, we get better at.  If I’m walking around with chronically contracted body parts, it will throw off my gait and have an unintended consequences.  If we practice over tensing abdominal muscles, or any muscle for that matter, it can often even destabilize the spine and cause pelvic floor issues.  When the body receives a message from your frontal cortex (your conscious command center) to tense, it thinks something is wrong, and we have the fight or flight response. So again, reeducating the brain and body to have a reflexive response, rather than walking around with a sucked in belly,  is something we can get back with a bit of help.

Working to have good shoulder stability, how to hold the head and spine, and mobility through the hips and sacrum, for example, are just as important to good back health as strong abs.  As with many things, it comes down to a common sense approach.