‘The core’ is a term that usually includes the deep abdominal muscles, the deep muscles alongside the spine and the pelvic floor muscles. ‘Core stability’ is a term that is widely used these days in the fitness and rehabilitation industries and is often proposed as a way of avoiding back pain, neck pain, musculoskeletal injury, and incontinence. It is also widely promoted as a support for gynaecological conditions and post pregnancy and child birth (Chang et al, 2015).
What I have discovered in my own journey with this part of my anatomy and from observing clients for the past 20 years, is that the intention we have when we engage these muscles consciously or unconsciously has a great bearing on how well these muscles can function and the end result in terms of pain or function of the body.
In all of the physical therapies and much of the personal training and fitness world, control is touted as the answer to instability. If a joint or part of the body is considered unstable or not functioning as it should, then the traditional response is to train up and strengthen the ‘core muscles’ in the body to be able to control the area.
Generally the theory goes that if you have a weak or under-active ‘core muscles’ then you need to mentally concentrate, activate, tighten, strengthen or brace (depending on who you talk to these muscles in order to control the movement or stabilise the joints that are moving in a way that is considered ‘out of control’.
As a Physiotherapist myself, during my training I was taught that to support people to recover and to prevent injury and dysfunction, you must train people to ‘activate and strengthen their dysfunctional core’.
The problem was, when I myself suffered an injury and applied this theory it did not help my symptoms. When I practiced traditional core exercises, there was a stiffness and rigidity in all my movements. My whole body felt stilted and contracted. And my pain levels went up not down.
I realised then that there may be limitations to the model based on contracting the muscles with the intention based on control and limitation. This approach may actually encourage a lack of flexibility and flow in the system. It introduces a rigidity to the body and perhaps may even create more tension in the area.
I have also noticed that many people hold a lot of tension in their core muscles including their pelvic floor in reaction to what is happening in their day or life. Whether we feel hurt, anxious, upset, rushed, under pressure to perform or overwhelmed, our reactions to these challenging or disturbing situations in life may be to harden our bodies and go into ‘control mode’ which can include tensing up the lower deep abdominals and pelvic floor. So essentially it is possible that we may be contracting our core out of fear and trying to control life.
The intention or quality of movement is everything when it comes to our physical health and well-being.
When we let go of trying to control our body, our emotions, or even control life itself, our bodies can feel lighter, more flexible, less hardened, less rigid and our movements can begin to flow with a lovely ease and grace.
When we let go of the excess tension and connect more deeply to the body and a deeper sense of steadiness or ease within and allow the body to flow, move naturally and handle and accept whatever is happening in that moment, our bodies can actually felt more stable, more whole and more together. There is an almost magical dynamic stability in letting go of control and connecting with the body and trusting that it knows what to do.
When we let go of the excess tension we can feel more naturally fluid and flexible in the body, the core muscles work in a naturally balanced harmonious way with each other and the other muscles - as they know what to do naturally when given the space to do it.
Have you ever seen a young child consciously switch on their core muscles?!
No, and yet they move with such grace and ease and balance. Perhaps this is because they are naturally very connected to their bodies natural flow? They know innately that their bodies have an intelligence that knows how to handle life.
So could the real answer to being stable, flexible and balanced in our bodies lie in letting go rather than control?
Could it be that the core muscles, and our bodies in general, naturally know how to work and strengthen if we allow them the space and do not impose on them a certain quality of movement based on fear and control?
I am not saying we should not train these muscles at all or leave them weak and floppy as clearly there are cases and conditions when these muscles do need to be strengthened and developed.
However perhaps it is not just about contracting and switching on muscles but it is about the quality of contraction or the quality of the movement that is crucial?
Through the life experience of being both a client and a practitioner and constantly refining my own lifestyle to support my health and wellbeing, I am passionate about sharing my experience and understanding of the body within my work as a practitioner with all my clients. We never stop learning.