Quit It With The Core Work
There is nothing special about your core. There is also nothing special about my core. The core, in general, just ain’t special.
However, it means everything.
First, let’s talk about what is generally defined as “the core.” (Which, by the way, I disagree with because core pretty much means the central most important part of something … but I’m ahead of myself.) I think the popular view of the term core would probably settle somewhere near a description of the abdominal muscle complex or trunk stabilizers (transverse abdominis / internal and external obliques / rectus abdominis / maybe even some multifidi thrown in there / and the diaphragm … and/or pelvic floor, rotators, and the quadratus lumborum if we wanna talk the good ol’ Pilates Powerhouse.) So, for a very generalized reference we can interchange the word core with “abs” … like most people do.
Why do we think abs are so important? Why are clients intrigued / mystified / and seeking the holy grail of THE CORE??? It might be as simple as … they don’t often consciously recruit nor notice them so they seem exotic. Why they don’t use them is a much more interesting question. I want you to try something. I want you to stand up and consciously squeeze the hell out of your abs. I mean really give it all ya’ got. Now, try to twist … try to side bend … try to roll down to touch your toes. Then, do all that, but with soft abs. Really let that gut go. Which version produced more movement? My guess is the version with relaxed abs. For most people movement is an all or nothing deal - either I’m squeezing it all or not at all - and I simply move more (spinally speaking) with softer, less braced, abs. (I mean I hurt, and feel heavy, but at least I can twist to look behind me … until my back tightens up in support, but that’s a different blog.) So, instead of learning to organize good movement strategies, involving the core, it’s just easier not to use it.
Engaging the core muscles isn’t going to make you skinnier … it isn’t going to fix your _____ pain … it isn’t even going to make you do a better whatever it is you’re trying to do better. Good movement is not about a weak muscle. It’s about how that muscle (or group of muscles as the case may be) works well, or not, with the rest of the body and the external forces acting upon the body at any given time (gravity / weights / springs / another body / momentum / etc.). Instead of saying squeeze this muscle or that muscle, I’ll often ask a client to invite a muscle to the party. Here’s the gag, no one likes someone who dominates a party, right? If you go from zero abdominal engagement to everything ya’ got … all the time … it’s probably much too much. Sure there’ll be times your core will have to work so hard you’ll wonder if you’re gonna cry or laugh, but the felt sense of recruitment (your experience) should often be more incremental than static. Squeezing your abs more doesn't often mean you're doing "it right."
Rather than simply squeezing those muscles, how does your relationship with the core shift if instead of exerting constant (taxing) force you take a moment to notice (appreciate) if those muscles react to your movement? Does that change if you change your posture? If you tuck too much? If your spine arches too much? Hold your breath? Sometimes it takes backing off to appreciate what’s there or not there. Just this morning I asked a client to completely soften her abs while doing some Reformer work. LET … THEM … GO. I then had her notice if her abs responded to the movement (intrinsically engaging or not). She noticed they were, so I asked her how that experience changes if she thought of lengthening her spine just a little longer. The experience enhanced and a new connection was made for her by her.
The core isn’t special but it is everything. It’s often the last one to be invited to the party. (It’s picky, and requires just the right posture, and the right balance of space and tension to create the alignment we're looking for. Plus most of us have both physical and emotional irritation/baggage occupying too much space in that area inhibiting us from truly experiencing the region, but that too is a different blog.) So when you feel the core engage, naturally, you know that you’re really on to something positive. From there you can experiment with all the fancy and amazing core cues we all know. What I’ve seen too frequently in teaching and with clients alike is an obsession with squeezing the abs (almost always inappropriately). You can certainly do that, but are those muscles squeezing on top of other muscles which are squeezing on top of other muscles and so on and so on (masking other inadequate movement strategies) … or has the core learned to react and participate with the group … knowing when to tense and when to relax? Is there rhythm to the experience? Does the engagement of the core feel naturally responsive, and if not why not? What else is doing too much work? Most importantly does the abdominal engagement feel good, and correct (rather than imposed), as if it’s serving to create space and length and a sense of ease for your spine / internal organs / and posture - all of which are your real core (that which is most important). How does the work change if it becomes less about squeezing and more about aligning your intentions and posture to create an environment that invites your abs to the party? Maybe next time you’re with a client, or having a movement moment all to yourself, give them or yourself permission to relax the abs and just move naturally.
by James Crader