Core Misconceptions

You can almost guarantee that when dealing with fitness or rehabilitation professionals, you will hear a reference to core training. Another near certainty is that very few people will agree on what it is. In my opinion, there is no aspect of training more important yet more misunderstood. Below, I have laid out the top 3 misconceptions I have encountered in my experience as both a physical therapist and strength and conditioning professional (or movement professional to combine the two). My hope in writing this post is to develop a healthy discussion among other movement professionals regarding your experiences. So please read below, and fire back:

 Please FIRE BACK with comments regarding your experiences.

Please FIRE BACK with comments regarding your experiences.

1. Your core is your abs:
It has been well established in scientific literature1,2 that there is no single muscle or group of muscles (as your abdominals are) that make up the core. The core is not a specific anatomical structure at all, but instead, a theoretical functional unit that is task-specific. Research has demonstrated that up to 29 muscles are involved in stabilizing the lumbar spine during isometric exertions alone2. Moreover, current movement theories indicate that core stability is to be broken down into two separate muscular factions: the superficial (global) and deep (local) core. The division of responsibilities of the muscles involved in these two categories are nearly opposite but often need to work together when one performs functional movement. In short, your superficial/global muscles are the muscles farther from the skeleton and those built for short duration/high tension activities such as heavy lifting and carrying. Your deep/local muscles are closest to your spine and responsible for balanced postural positioning during longer duration/low intensity bouts of work, such as sitting, standing, walking, running, etc. Cooperation of these two core systems occur by the deep muscles activating prior to the superficial muscles, during limb or trunk movements.

 The muscles of the body work in a chain in order to allow for the pelvis to be held in a neutral position. The idea of the abdominals being the primary core stabilizer is extremely short-sighted

The muscles of the body work in a chain in order to allow for the pelvis to be held in a neutral position. The idea of the abdominals being the primary core stabilizer is extremely short-sighted

2. There are core-specific exercises:
Initially, this may sound like blasphemy to the movement professional, but let me explain. What I am indicating is that while I don’t believe that there are core-specific exercises, I do believe that nearly all exercises can be considered core training opportunities depending on the quality of the movement performed. Often exercises that are labeled core-specific are simply positional holds of more complex movements or movements that have been simplified to the point where pelvic orientation can be the primary focus. This can be a very skillful practice in the continuum of progressions for more complex movements, but has very little benefit outside of a functional movement context. Using a common example, the prone plank is no more of a core exercise than a push-up. The plank is simply a static hold of the full push-up movement. The push-up itself, when performed properly, is a beautiful display of dynamic core stability. The same idea can be carried over to your favorite movement whether it be pull-ups, deadlifts, or Olympic lifts.

 Am I holding a plank or stopping at the top of a push-up? 

Am I holding a plank or stopping at the top of a push-up? 

3. Your core needs strengthening:
As we have identified that the anatomy of the core really isn’t that anatomical but more task-specific, it is helpful to look at core stability as a concept that needs to be taught more than a structure that needs to be built up. When heavy things need to be lifted and carried, tension needs to be created in all muscles involved to better stabilize all the joints involved in the movements executed. To build optimal tension in the muscles a balanced joint orientation needs to be maintained by the deeper stability muscles, and these muscles need to be activated before the onset of superficial muscle activity. In this way, timing and coordination are more important to train than strength. What is often mistaken for core strengthening is simply isometric co-contraction of superficial muscles to generate more force during a particular high-intensity movement.

 Coordinated tension is needed between deep and superficial muscles, to stabilize the spine during heavy carrying.

Coordinated tension is needed between deep and superficial muscles, to stabilize the spine during heavy carrying.

When dealing with low-intensity activities, the idea of building tension and strength is actually in opposition to efficient core training. As the activity will need to either be sustained for a long period of time (i.e. sitting in an upright torso position for two hours), or be easily controlled in order to progress to a more challenging activity (i.e. own a single leg stance before throwing a kick), creating the least amount of tension in the body necessary to maintain a balanced posture should be the primary focus. This ability to effortlessly maintain a balanced posture, requires joint and soft tissue mobility to also be balanced throughout the body, making mobility and stability training inseparable. It should be noted that when referring to mobility training, I am not referring to the idea of getting as flexible as possible in as many joints as possible. Mobility, like core stability, is task-specific and must be trained as such. But that is a topic for another post.

 A child's ability to easily maintain a squat is an example of the interdependent nature of mobility and stability with longer duration/low-intensity activities.

A child's ability to easily maintain a squat is an example of the interdependent nature of mobility and stability with longer duration/low-intensity activities.

References:

1. Akuthota, Venu, Andrea Ferreiro, Tamara Moore, and Michael Fredericson. "Core Stability Exercise Principles." Current Sports Medicine Reports: 39-44.
2. Cholewicki, Jacek, and James J. Vanvliet Iv. "Relative Contribution of Trunk Muscles to the Stability of the Lumbar Spine during Isometric Exertions." Clinical Biomechanics: 99-105.