Core, core, core. Core stability. Core strength. Brace your core. Hold your abs in. Squeeze your abs.
Where did this come from? No truly, where did this idea come from?
Because when you ask the top physical therapists who are on the cutting edge of pain science, they can’t seem to find ANY literature that suggests core stability and bracing your core is actually proven to be beneficial for your back and your back pain.
Now, let me get one thing straight before you throw something at me out of anger and confusion.
CORE STRENGTH IS GOOD. Yes, having a strong core is, of course, important. Strengthening muscles and improving our ability to move with mobility, strength, power & balance is always helpful.
However, when you ask Peter O’Sullivan, a world renowned physiotherapist from Australia (see video above), he will tell you that we have taken this concept WAY overboard. Basically, we are now treating our body as if we are doing planks all day long. Planks are great, but, is it great if we are doing them all day?
Let me give you an example. Let’s say I told you to hold a bicep curl all day long, every day. No rest. Your muscle will be under tension and under load the entire day. Do you think that this will get you stronger? Or is it possible that you will actually, at some point, become weakened and tight due to overusing that muscle?
The same goes for our core. Exercises that strengthen this innocuous complex of muscles we like to call the core are incredibly powerful. But does that mean we should be doing them all day? Yet this is what we are essentially doing, unknowingly, all day, every day.
A large majority of the population who experiences either chronic back pain (that has resulted from no particular injury) or recurrent, random back pain tends to brace themselves into these positions and movements that are “tensing their core”. We don’t even realize it! But as a result of being told that core stability is great and will protect our spine, and that we should stay as upright as possible, we are actually increasing the amount of compressive load in our spine and leaving it more vulnerable to seemingly random pains and strains.
Here is another analogy to help clarify. Think about your car. If you were to go on a road trip and you knew the road was going to be pretty bumpy, would you over-inflate your tire to give you more protection from all those forces? Or would you actually allow for a little bit of give in the tires to protect you from those forces? Which situation would subject you to more force? I’m pretty sure an over-inflated tire would actually make the car quite stiff and unable to absorb those forces. The same goes for our spine when we “squeeze our abs”, or “brace our core”. We come rigid, stiff, and vulnerable to external forces.
Again, strengthening your core during your workouts is great, but if you start doing it all day, that’s when you start to actually put your back at more risk.
So, what do you do now? Well, start paying attention to your resting postures and your movements. Feel your stomach with your hands. Are those muscles contracting? It will take some practice to understand whether or not they are, as at first, you may think that’s just what those muscles are supposed to feel like all day long.
Try this for me – try to be as loosey goosey as possible in your stomach. That’s right. Try to be as flabby and sloppy in your core as possible. You don’t hear that often do you? Ha! But truly. Just let it go. Incorporate some relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing to try to let those core muscles go. Let your entire body just relax. Let your shoulders and spine round and slump forward. Just let everything go and let gravity do its job.
I bet if you are experiencing some back pain, or even sciatic pain, that if you start to relax and let this muscular tension go, you will pretty soon start to feel those muscles relax, and your pain subside. Let me know how it goes. And as always, if you have any questions, or even if you want to jump on a quick video chat to ask me if you’re doing it correctly, do not hesitate to reach out! I love to help as many people as I can.
-Melanie, your Back Pain Personal Trainer
To learn more about Melanie Daly and her personal training, please visit her website: http://www.backpainpersonaltrainer.com/