A Dynamic Core

A lot of things get said about the ‘core’.  Principally that it must be ‘strong’ and it must be ‘stable’. And of course those can be useful ideas. But it begs a whole lot of questions. For starters:

  • What is the core?
  • What does strong or stable mean?
  • Does strong and stable mean the same if you are doing karate or Egyptian belly dancing or running or walking in the park or standing in a queue or watching telly at home or or or ….?
  • Does it need to be anything else other than or as well as strong and stable? Or does it just need to be that all the time?

These are big questions. I feel a little overwhelmed just looking at them. And yet we just assume we know what we are all talking about half the time. So many people come into my studio and tell me their core ‘isn’t strong enough’ – and this ranges from women post childbirth to a young man with back pain who has a habit of cycling hundreds of kilometeres and doing an extraordinary amount of tuck jumps and other training. So what is going on here? Well I can only have a go at wading through some of the ideas and say where my thinking is at the moment. And/or you can come to my series of 3  workshops starting on march 24th! (or just do one of them!) details here: http://www.feldenkraisworks.co.uk/schedule/

OK. The core:

Well you can decide for yourself what you are talking about but here are some possibilities: A lot of people mean the part of you below the ribs and down into the pelvis but mostly consisting of the abdominal muscles: obliques, abdominus rectus and (holy of all holies) transversus abdominus which wraps around like a corset. In fact for some this is really the core of ‘the core’: The TA and the ability to ‘isolate’ it and control it1.  Some will include the back muscles of the spine and others eg quadratus lumborum that runs from the ribs to the top of the pelvis on either side of the back.
Some will say it’s the whole of the trunk including the muscles of the rib cage and that big breathing muscle the diaphragm but keep it to the intrinsic muscles of the trunk and not so much the outer muscles of the shoulder blades and arms.

I guess I think of it a little differently and a little more skeletally – as a Feldenkrais teacher perhaps would.  I am usually thinking about how the bits closer to the middle (we would say ‘proximal’) help with organising either balance over the lower extremeties or creating movement in the extremeties (we would say ‘distal’ parts) like the arms and legs or the organisation of the head. Or vice versa: how does movement move from one distal part to another through more proximal parts and how does the movement of the head ask for movement in the chest, back  or pelvis… So  I think of the core (although to be honest I usually won’t use that word because it has become so loaded and variously defined and isn’t so very useful to me, but if pushed…) as the bones of the pelvis, spine and rib cage and then any and all of the muscles and fascia that come into play in relation to those. I suppose as a result I don’t see a great value in defining exactly what muscles are or are not in ‘the core’ or isolating any muscle or muscles in particular largely because muscles don’t work in isolation but in synergy (together in patterns) organised by the nervous system and that’s where very interesting work can be done –  but I do see enormous value in how the middle relates to the periphery (proximal to distal) and vice versa and that has a clear crossover with what other people think of as ‘the core’ and so can impact on those ways of thinking.


Oh boy.

Well first of all its worth pointing out that tension and holding are not the same as strength, so holding your ‘core’ tight all the time doesn’t necessarily make it strong.  After all a strong muscle needs to be able to generate power through contraction but if it is held short and tight all the time it doesn’t have the ability to contract much further and so generate any power. And it certainly limits what you can do or how you can breathe given that moving and breathing require those parts to move and not be rigid so you would have to ask what it enables you to do strongly if you can’t move or breathe well. You may say to me that no one holds their core tight all the time but I can assure you they do. I know many people who do exactly that and think that’s what they should be doing or don’t know it and don’t know how to do different.

Then I guess you would have to ask ‘strong for what’? For example you need amazing ‘core’ control to belly dance (its not a wobbly belly by the way, its about the movement of the pelvis and spine and takes a lot of dexterity!) but that’s all different to what you need to do to run long distance which is different again to sprinting because you have to brace against more of push in sprinting in a way you couldn’t sustain in long distance and that’s different again to punching and its not even the same all the way through a punch as what you do with your core during the traveling phase of a punch is different to when it lands. And when you give birth you use your core very strongly but that is about bearing down which most certainly wouldn’t involve pulling in which is what some people associate with using the core strongly although that is different again to how a  martial artist would use their core which again varies depending on what they are doing of course but includes activities more like bracing or a highly specialised and complicated use for extreme stabilisation that involves a kind of squeezing in and up of the tanden (roughly 3 fingers below the navel) but then a kind of bearing down at the same time.  So it would be very simplistic to suggest that strong only means one thing when it comes to how you use the core. The question is strong for what? And we begin to start thinking about how to use it rather then holding it.

And then again we usually think strong means contracting muscles and working hard but how about standing for example? What does it mean to have a strong core in relation to standing? From what clients tell me you would think you need to do a ton of exercises and be pulling in and all sorts just to stand. Well maybe that can be true for some at a certain point in their life if very disrupted by eg childbirth, but if you can organise yourself well it shouldn’t have to be.  I gave the example of a young man who cycles many 100s of kilometres and does many tuck jumps and a great deal of other training and exercise. He has a very painful back and you can feel its fragility when he is standing. He was told his core must be too weak1 and he had the sense to know that that wasn’t a helpful thing to say to him given he has abs of steel and that more core strength exercises was going to increase the tension he had developed and the resulting ‘weakness’ of his back. We did only one session because he doesn’t live anywhere near me but I have seen other young men like this. In this session we did no core strength exercise at all. We simply found what ways his chest could begin to move and then reorganised the way his rib cage related to his pelvis and his legs/hip joints to his pelvis too. Small movements that enabled the pathways of movement from the pelvis/hip joints through his back to his ribs and vice versa. A great variety of small suggestions to his skeleton of how this rib and this vertebra could adjust in relation to that one and this part respond to that to transmit force from one place in the skeleton to another through his lower back so that it didn’t get stuck there. At the end his back was ‘stronger’ in that the shakiness and fragility was much less. He felt ‘more solid’.  He could stand more easily. It was easier to move with less pain. Many places were working less and some maybe more but the key was that they were in a better relation to each other.  A better balance.  A better distribution of the work –  or as feldenkrais people tend to say: ‘organisation’ – and that’s not all about more contraction and more holding. Sometimes its about less.


Again, does stable mean completely held and is it necessary all the time or to what degree? Often stable is opposed to’ labile’ or ‘able to be mobile’. Sure we need stability but we also need lability. One of our great virtues as human beings is we have such a high centre of gravity it takes very little to set us into motion. Again I think stability means different things in different contexts. Stability when you land a punch is different to when you are running. When you punch there is going to be a moment when the punch lands and there is a widespread co-contraction – especially of the core. You don’t want it all soggy or there is no force, no impact and your momentum is not under control. When you are running you don’t want the pelvis flopping all over the place, you need some clarity in how it moves and how it doesn’t and how much and also maybe a moment of stiffness against the push off if you are going fast but certainly not the sort of stability that means nothing moves and not the same as landing a punch. It gets really hard to use your legs if the core is holding the pelvis and ribs so stable they can’t participate.

Have a look at what Dr. Mel Siff (a major voice in weight training) has to say about ‘core stability’ http://www.drmelsiff.com/1147/dr-mel-siff-on-core-stability/  . He interestingly has no time for it as an idea as opposed to skill – a preference which speaks to me and probably most Feldenkrais teachers – and he also stresses the importance of peripheral stability ie our relationship to the ground – also much emphasised by Moshe Feldenkrais and any martial artist. As he points out you can have all the core stability in the world but if you don’t address your relationship to the ground it means nothing (though it would mean a lot to an aerial artist or a diver). And I would add that if you are used to pulling in to create core stability you even disrupt your relationship to the ground -try it – whereas a bracing (sense of your insides moving apart in all directions)  roots you to the ground more. -try it- (though as I said before, part of karate training uses a highly specialised version (and very difficult to achieve accurately) that involves aspects of both at the same time for a rock like-stability, but it is not used all the time by any means as it would be hard to move!)

Part of the argument is that movement/force  can’t travel through sogginess and if the ‘core’ is soggy then the movement of the pelvis can’t transmit to the chest and arms and of course that is sometimes true. But the opposite, that everything must be held stiff and tight to send movement through is not true either since you can send force well through the densest material we have: bone and how much soft tissue stiffness we need to enable that will vary. It’s a question of the moment that you need compliance and the moment your need co-contraction and the ‘tuning’ or degree to which you need it. In this context as in some of the others is worth looking at what sport and biomechanics expert Dr. Stuart McGill has to say: http://www.backfitpro.com/pdf/Enhancing_back_performance_with_super_stiffness.pdf

If the core is always held tight you simply can’t do anything. The skeleton is fixed. You can’t move. You can’t breathe. I had a garage mechanic come and see me who was held in such a muscular vice he hurt everywhere, he even had shooting pains in his head and he was struggling to breathe. Conversely you can send movement through a rope or a whip or a bunch of separate objects if they are in some sort of line even if they are not exactly neatly end to end (try it with matchboxes) – so long as you send the force through them in a way that works. You can’t push anything with a rope or whip though so It depends what kind of movement or what kind of force we are talking about  and what result you want. So we come back to how you use yourself to do it. Not just a genaralised holding and tightening. We need to find a clear pathway for the force to transmit or the movement to travel to achieve the end you want and the tuning that is required. Feldenkrais can help with almost all of that (for high tuning of co-contraction or specialised uses like karate you need sport specific training on top).

For me it comes down to this: Clarity. Clarity of the movement pattern and what is involved – or not involved – in it. Clarity of how the force travels through the skeleton and how the skeleton moves through space – and that’s about skill not just more contraction or stabilisation even if it may involve those things at times. Clarity in the organisation of the skeleton, and the ability to move in all planes and between all planes (another whole deal as a lot of training is verrry linear); clarity in the adjustability and differentiation of the spine and chest and the relationships between different parts on bigger and smaller scales. Clarity of timing and quality of movement because where stabilisation or co-contraction is needed there is a difference in timing in different activities and of quality and a degree: an exactitude about where and how. I am not advocating generally holding a bit less tension: You might want a massive contraction or even fixing of the core at a certain moment (hitting the ball, landing a punch) – but when, exactly how much and for how long? and can you let go of it as quickly? Can you do the opposite and let the tension and holding go completely when you need to? Dr. Stuart Mc Gill talks about this from 58 mins into this teleseminar: http://www.sportsrehabexpert.com/public/195.cfm where he also says that a superior athlete is the one who can go from compliance (relaxation – sort of) to co-contraction to compliance most completely and in the fastest time and that maybe we should be training compliance as much as contraction.  Oh yes. This is some of the same idea in this extract from an interview with him:

In a nutshell, we show techniques to bind muscles together to create stiffness at weaker joints so that the power joints aren’t constrained – the leapers know how to do this as do the big lifters and martial artists. It was really a matter of studying the best to see how they did it. We show how to conquer sticking points and how to enhance speed. It’s the same principle.

Take a sprinter, for example. Muscle contraction is stiffening and paradoxically slows movement. When we measured top sprinters, they were amazingly relaxed with incredible speed of contraction and incredible relaxation within each cycle. They ran on their tightened passive tissues with a short explosion of muscular force and stiffness at the precise time.We saw the same in the great golfers – a relaxed backswing and downstroke, but an enormous stiffening contraction at ball impact. This was followed with immediate relaxation to preserve the speed of the follow through. We learned why we have a poor shot when we try to “kill the ball.” We actually slow ourselves down with too much muscle force! Optimizing superstiffness is a wonderful concept.
And I would add ‘optimising’ means not only increasing what he calls superstiffness but making it very specific in terms of timing and also enabling the opposite – being able to let it go (which he clarifies in that teleseminar).

A strong core doesn’t mean to me rock solid abs and fixity. It means to me an intelligent, dynamic, well-organised and adaptable core for whatever range of things you want to do and that’s what we will be looking at in the workshops. We won’t be training high amounts of co-contraction though. That’s an idea that requires sport specific training on TOP of what we will be doing. But the work we do will be fundamental organisation of how we use the core in as many different ways as we can fit in – hence 3 workshops of you can do them all (don’t have to). http://www.feldenkraisworks.co.uk/schedule

1This idea comes largely from one Australian study that really took a hold on the corrective exercise industry. In it they noticed that the Transversus Abdominus starts to contract late in some people with back pain in certain activities which has resulted in a theory of attempting to isolate and activate TA in a more generalised way. Dr. Stuart McGill, Dr. Mel Siff and many others have shown the problems with this idea and with the original study. In particular Dr. Stuart McGill has been very noisy about this. Listen to the same teleseminar given above too but from 20 minutes in. http://www.sportsrehabexpert.com/public/195.cfm 


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