The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term ‘core stability’ as the capacity of the muscles of the torso to assist in the maintenance of good posture, balance etc., especially during movement”
There are many muscles of the torso, including, but NOT exclusively, the abdominals and the obliques.
The muscles of the lower back, upper back, chest and even shoulders are included the region of the ‘torso’, but the widely accepted region of the ‘core’ is the muscles between the bottom of the ribcage and the bottom of the pelvis.
By its very definition, it is not physically possible in all able bodied humans that are capable of standing upright, to have a ‘weak’ core, since all the muscles of the body work in a coordinated manner to produce movement of any kind, and therefore the ‘core’ muscles are assisting at all times. If the core area of this kind of person were actually weak, it would not be possible for them to stand upright.
Of course, it is possible for the muscles of the ‘core’ to be more helpful in creating good posture, which is why it has become an area of focus for the fitness and therapy industries – but not in the way that it is traditionally thought.
It is a common practice in the fitness and therapy industries to encourage the active contraction of the ‘core’ muscles on the front of the body in an attempt to improve the ‘stability’ of the core area, using exercises like ‘planks’, high knee lifts, or crunches. Some activities like Pilates even have a conscious ‘drawing in’ of the abdominals at the heart of every movement they do.
The trouble is, by placing an over-emphasis on one area of the ‘core’ and its function (i.e. the front of the body and the activation of the muscles), we encourage a persistent activation of these muscles that creates a tight ‘core’ area which does indeed improve the strength of the area, but its this improved strength that we often mistake for improved stability.
In fact, what we create with this persistent activation is a stiffness in the tissue, which may be able to withstand more force in certain ways, but is more susceptible to damage when forces are delivered in other ways – for example, a stiff ‘core’ that has been practiced in planks, high knee lifts and crunches will be able to withstand forces while the spine is straight or flexed (bent forward), but will be susceptible to damage if the spine is required to extend (bend backwards) or rotate.
This damage may occur as a single, sudden movement (like a reaction to something unexpected), or may occur over time from activities that require a slight spinal extension such as ‘sighting’ in open water while swimming front crawl, or spinal rotation, such as running.
True ‘core stability’ for me, is the ability of the core to withstand movement and load in ANY direction.
There’s a Japanese proverb that sums it up perfectly for me, and it’s that
“a bamboo that bends is stronger than an oak that resists”
‘Core stability’ is hugely important in sporting performance as the more capable this area is of absorbing force, the less pressure is exerted on the rest of the body, but stiff, strong muscles can only absorb force for so long before they start to deteriorate as a result. Whereas, soft, pliable, extendable, strong muscles are far more capable of both absorbing these forces and assisting in good posture, balance etc for much longer periods of time without deterioration.
Like many other terms/phrases in the fitness and therapy industries, the term ‘core stability’ has created an over-emphasis on one area of function (the terms ‘warm up’ and ‘cool down’ do this with body temperature), which is leading to imbalances throughout the body that significantly contribute to injury. Perhaps a more effective way to produce the all round strength PLUS the ability to move (strength + ability = stability), is to think of the action you need to take (i.e. MOVEMENT) rather than the desired outcome.
Maybe if the phrase was ‘core movement’ rather than ‘core stability’ we would focus on being able to move the core under load in many different directions, and as a result produce the stability we were looking for.
I’ve lost count of the number of patients I’ve treated who’ve come to me with lower back pain and have very poor movement through their ‘core’. Once we restored the lengthening capabilities of this area, the symptom went away, but to make it stay away for good, we added some exercises designed to strengthen the core in both its lengthened position and its entire range of movement.
A great place to start in dealing with a tight core is the hip flexors. This area of the body is massively overused in the traditional pursuit of ‘core stability’. You can give my FREE Video “Hip Flexors 5 Ways” a try simply by adding your email to the box below.