Core stability. These words are tossed around easily these days: common “jock talk.” But what do the words really mean? A strong core enables a stable pelvis and spine. Yes…. But what is “the core?” Strong abdominal muscles? No. I have worked with a lot of wonderful people who have beautiful, “ripped” and rock hard abdominals, but who have movement challenges and possibly pain due to a lack of spinal/pelvic stability. Okay – perhaps core training involves more than simply strengthening abdominal muscles. How do the pelvic floor muscles fit in? The respiratory diaphragm? The back muscles? How well balanced is overall movement patterning?
In most fitness and medical circles, the body’s inner unit core musculature is often accepted to be made up of four structures: the respiratory diaphragm, the transversus abdominus, the lumbar multifidus and the muscles of the pelvic floor. When this inner unit is strong, the pelvis and spine are generally well supported. This is a good thing; but is it the whole story? Not even close. Coordination and balance are the key. Strengthening the inner unit within an inch of its life may actually be a hindrance, if it is not strengthened relative to the actual load/movement needs of that particular body. As much as external bracing can hinder mobility in a body with a weak core, bracing of the inner unit can disrupt deep structures leading to dysfunction of a different kind. The trick is to find the balance of strength and mobility that creates the most support with the least stress on the body as a whole.
In her 2005 article, “Recent Advances in the Assessment and Treatment of the Sacroiliac Joint – Stability & The Role of Motor Control,” Diane Lee describes joint stability as: “The effective accommodation of the joints to each specific load demand through an adequately tailored joint compression, as a function of gravity, coordinated muscle and ligament forces, to produce effective joint reaction forces under changing conditions. Optimal stability is achieved when the balance between performance (the level of stability) and effort is optimized to economize the use of energy. Non-optimal joint stability implicates altered laxity/stiffness values leading to increased joint translations resulting in a new joint position and/or exaggerated/reduced joint compression, with a disturbed performance/effort ratio.” (Vleeming, A. , Albert HB, van der Helm FCT, Lee, D, Ostgaard HC, Stuge B and Struresson, B)
A few years have passed since this article was first presented, and there have been further advancements in our understanding of stability for the sacroiliac joint. But the idea of optimum balance between performance and effort is still true – throughout the whole body. Any exercise program with a goal to create true core stability must include the following:
education of the client as to the specific components of the inner unit and its relationship to other structures, increasing both intellectual and felt-sense awareness;
identification of client’s current stabilizing strategies, and a deconstruction of inefficient patterning;
- strengthening, coordination and well-timed activation of specific muscle groups, in relation to each other, in various movements, leading to ease of motion in the WHOLE body.
In short, core training must above all be MOVEMENT training. The first step is sub-maximal loading with a range of motion within which the client can remain stable. Next it’s about gradually increasing ROM and load demand, watching movement patterning carefully to catch where the client may be diverting the load to other structures instead. People can crunch their way to hell and back in 16 different directions, and they may even achieve the “look” that their friends and the magazines tell them they should want. But they may also be decreasing their functional stability, and increasing their vulnerability to injury over the long-term. Fitness trainers and movement teachers have a responsibility to observe how their clients are patterning the movement they are coaching them to do. Because whether a client’s goal is general fitness, rehab, weight loss or elite performance, no one wants to uptrain dysfunction and pain. Done well, training with this wider eye may take a little longer to master – both for the trainer and the client. But the results are spectacularly better: improved and sustainable performance with much less overall energy expenditure. Translation: EASE OF MOTION.
The really interesting part about training this way is that it is not a linear process. The pace of each client’s progress will be different as each one encounters his/her own challenges to awareness, balance and strength. One cannot safely deconstruct inefficient postural/movement patterning until the client has something better to take its place. Helping someone find their way to real core stability is an exciting dance where the persistent and curious find their way. There is no instant fix… just an intriguing process whereby the body becomes better and better equipped to handle itself in the world.