Are you stabilising your core correctly?

When it comes to fitness, we appear to have become obsessed with numbers – how much can you squat? How much can you bench press? How many pull ups can you do in one minute? Technique, however, is often overlooked. 

As a fitness professional I regularly measure and analyse my clients’ metrics as it forms a key part of tracking their progress, but I do not judge the efficacy of any given program exclusively by the metrics. 

If a prospective client could back squat double their body weight with poor technique, and after working with me for 6 months could only back squat their bodyweight with optimal technique, on paper they would appear to have regressed, but in reality, they’ve made tremendous progress. Numbers can be deceiving if it’s the only measure of progress being used. 

As a fitness professional, it is my duty to always promote optimal technique. Oftentimes that requires reducing the load, and I get it, light weights or reducing the load has somehow become associated with weakness, but I don’t believe there’s any room for ego when it comes to exercise (or anything else for that matter). I believe in focusing on the fundamentals to promote longevity and prevent injuries

Of course, every exercise cannot be performed with optimal technique every time, and that’s not my expectation, but attempting to perform an exercise with optimal technique should always be the priority. “I’m able to back squat my bodyweight 10 times with optimal technique on a regular basis” sounds a lot better than “once upon a time I managed to back squat double my bodyweight, but I injured my lower back due to poor technique and I haven’t been able to do a single pain-free air squat since”

In order to perform most exercises safely and with sound mechanics, core stability is crucial. If you’re struggling with an exercise, it’s very likely that poor core stability is a limiting factor, if not the limiting factor. 

What is ‘core stability?’ 

Below is an excerpt from Dr. Aaron Horschig’s Web site, Squat University, regarding core stability:  

“Imagine for a moment a symphony orchestra composed of countless musicians. Just as each and every person must play their instruments in a united manner with constant changes in tempo and volume, our body must too coordinate each and every muscle and joint to create purposeful and sound movement.

The muscles that surround our spine are considered the “core” of our body. It is composed of the abdominal muscles on your front and sides, the erector muscles of the back and even the larger muscles that span multiple joints (like the lats and psoas muscles). It may surprise you that the glutes are also an important part of the ‘core’. Each and every one of these muscles must work together in order to enhance the stability of the spine. But what really is ‘stability’? 

Spinal stability is something Professor McGill has been able to define and measure with his work. First, when muscles contract they create force and stiffness. It is the stiffness part that is important for stability. Think of the spine as a flexible rod that needs to be stiffened to bear load. This is the role of the muscles. Through his research, he has measured athletes who fail to obtain appropriate muscular stiffness around the spine by coordinating muscle activation, and their subsequent injuries and pain. 

Second, our body functions as a linked system. And distal movement requires proximal stiffness. Consider trying to move a finger back and forth very quickly – the wrist needed to be stiffened otherwise the entire hand would move. Now using the same principle consider the action of walking. The pelvis must be stiffened to the spine otherwise the left hip would fall as the left leg swings forward to take a step. This core stiffness is non-negotiable to enable walking. Thus all body movement needs appropriate coordination of muscles. To move, run, or squat requires spine stiffness and core stability. 

When the core fails to meet the stability demands placed on the body during a certain lift, parts of the spine will be overloaded with forces that increase injury risk and performance will suffer. Much like a trumpeter squealing off pitch and out of tune would instantly dismantle the entire orchestra’s sound, each and every muscle that surrounds the spine must play it’s part in maintaining our body’s own “symphony of movement” in order to produce safe and powerful movement. 

Where Do We Start? 

There are two general approaches many will take to address a weak link of the core. The first (and most common method you’ll see in fitness clubs across the world) is through dynamic strengthening exercises such as crunches, back extensions or Russian twists. Traditionally coaches and medical practitioners have used these exercises that build strength through movement with the mindset that a stronger core will give the spine less chance for buckling and breaking under tension. 

To a point this is true. Each muscle that surrounds the spine does need to have sufficient amount of strength to contract and ‘turn on’. When the muscles of our core contract, stiffness is created. Much like a guy-wire that attaches and holds up a radio tower, each muscle that surrounds the spine must provide a certain amount of tension and stiffness to maintain the strength of the spine as a whole and keep it from buckling and becoming injured. 

However, here’s what most people don’t understand. Many people who develop back pain already have strong backs! While exercises like Russian twists, sit-ups or back extensions from a GHD machine may be great at increasing strength, they do little to increase core stiffness. 

In order to enhance the quality of stiffness, one must train the core differently. This comes through the second approach of using isometric exercises built to enhance muscular endurance and coordination. 

An ‘isometric’ describes when a muscle or group of muscles are activated and contracted but there is no change in the joints they cross. For example, during a side plank the lateral oblique and quadratus lumborum (QL) muscles are very active yet the spine and hips remain still and do not move. Research has found that isometric exercises to enhance muscular endurance are far superior when compared to dynamic strengthening exercises in enhancing spinal stiffness and stability (making them ideal not only for rehabilitation of back injuries but also in the training and enhancement of athletic performance). 

This is because the core functions to limit excessive motion (especially in barbell lifting) rather than creating it. Therefore, the traditional way in which the fitness and rehab world has approached addressing the core for years has been completely backwards! This is why someone can have a ripped six-pack and yet have poor core stability when it comes to deadlifting or performing a squat. 

All For One, And One For All 

Much like the symphony orchestra illustration from before, each and every muscle of the core has a role to play, but none is more important than the other. For this reason, proper stability training should not focus on one specific muscle. For decades, medical practitioners were incorrectly taught to focus and isolate certain muscles such as the transverse abdomin[i]s (TA), multifidus, or QL in an effort to enhance core stability. This method however, is flawed for a number of reasons. 

First, research has shown it is impossible for an individual to solely activate one specific muscle of the core. Despite what your physical therapist or doctor says, you cannot train your multifidus, QL or even your TA muscle in isolation. 

Even it were possible to target a specific muscle of the core (as some would argue is possible through exercises like abdominal hollowing), methods like this have been shown to be far less efficient in creating stability for the spine compared to abdominal bracing (contracting all of the core muscles together).” 

I highly recommend reading the full post here

How could we brace our core? 

One way is through intra-abdominal cavity pressure. Think of a can of Coca-Cola (think, not drink!), before the can is opened it is rock solid. The pressure inside the can makes it virtually impossible to change its shape. This is the same type of pressure that we want to create before we perform most exercises, and we do this by bracing the core. 

There’s two easy ways to brace your core. Simply cough, and as you do you will feel your core tense up. Or imagine that someone was about to punch you in the stomach; the moment they’re about to punch you, you will tense your core. That tension is what we want to maintain throughout the exercise – you’re still able to breath normally, but now the midline is stable. We’re effectively creating a natural weight belt

Regardless of if we’re performing an air squat, clean and jerk, or pull up, core stability is critical. Exercises that demand dynamic movement of the midline such as crunches and back extensions may promote strength, but they aren’t going to help much to promote core stiffness; in order to promote core stability, we should rather think of isometric exercises such as ‘The Bird Dog’ or ‘Side Plank’. For an in-depth description about how to perform these exercises and more, take a look at this post on Squat University (for the record, I have zero affiliation with Squat University or Dr. Aaron Horschig, I’ve just found a lot of his research valuable).

Thank you for taking the time to read this post, I truly hope you found it valuable. Please feel free to leave a comment; if you’d like to work with me please book a consultation.

All the best 

Angelo 

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