Getting to the Core: 4 Myths About Strengthening Your Abs

Activating our core muscles has been a mantra by many professionals helping their clients in seeking better overall strength, protecting from back pain and improving performance. But what I learned early in my PT practice is that our brains do not know muscles, only movement.
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What exactly is the core? When I asked this of my 92-year-old mother-in-law, she said it had something to do with her abdominals. When I taught anatomy for a Pilates certification training, I decided to survey fitness and health professionals on what they felt the core muscles were.

The results were interesting, with many interpretations. The most agreed upon answer was the deep and superficial muscles that stabilize, align, and move the trunk of the body -- specifically our abdominals and back muscles.

Activating our core muscles has been a mantra by many professionals helping their clients in seeking better overall strength, protecting from back pain and improving performance.

But what I learned early in my PT practice is that our brains do not know muscles, only movement. Gary Gray, PT, said it well in an interview with the New York Times: "I would rather facilitate the motion that turns the muscle on all by itself."

What are the myths you may want to know before embarking on a new fitness regimen?

Myth 1: Practice sucking in your gut, aka "drawing your navel to spine, or hollowing it in." As the thinking goes, tightening your abdominals acts like a muscular corset, protecting your spine and flattening your belly. "If you hollow in, you bring the muscles closer to the spine, and you reduce the stability of the spine," said Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics in the department of kinesiology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, in an interview with the New York Times.

Flattening the belly? Unless someone has a finely-tuned muscular sensitivity, most people will activate the muscles that shorten the trunk. This can lead to a thickened appearance, contrary to reducing belly bulge.

Myth 2: Continually tighten your core muscles, even at rest. Not only does this go against the economy of movement, but this habitual training can lead to restricting your full muscle length. High level performance requires us to be able to contract our muscles while lengthening. We need to be free to move in an ever-changing environment. Chronic holding in the abdomen can also compromise space for your internal organs.

Myth 3: Strengthening the core will help you avoid back pain. In the last decade we are aware of many more risk factors involved with back pain, so our understanding has changed. We do know that exercising, PT and movement offer many benefits to avoid back pain, but there is little evidence that supports isolating core strength helps avoid back pain. Physical therapist Robert Burgess, PT, PhD, GCFP, states general exercises for low back pain may be just as effective as core strengthening.

Myth 4: Controlling core muscles is the most important aspect of getting stronger. By only looking at muscles for improving overall performance, we often overlook how our skeleton supports us and how our perceptions effect the way we move. We need to be able to feel and attend to our ground support to access true power.

So what should you do to enhance your workouts, exercise to reduce injuries, and develop the best muscle distribution in your body?

1. Get skeletal. Take advantage of the structural support your skeleton provides. To do this you need to orient to the space you are in. Stand and sense the ground through your feet. Feel how you are holding your weight and make small movements in a few directions. Can you try this before your workout with weights? This will help you find a way to distribute your weight more evenly. Jeff Haller, Ph.D., states: "If you're imprecise in the way you find support through your skeleton, you're going to have to engage more of your musculature to maintain your orientation."

2. Find a way to get to know your everyday movement better. Maybe you are already doing this when you push or lift something heavy, but being mindful with all of our daily movements is challenging for even the greatest athletes and may even be impractical. Take a class that allows you to improve your ability to discriminate how you move, make it fun, playful and pleasurable like a NIA class. Consider studying an internal martial art such as Qigong, Bagua or Tai Chi to develop power by moving from your center in a more dynamic way.

3. If you are working with a trainer, Pilates or yoga teacher, have them help you find ways to vary your movement strategy. This can help you discriminate better movement choices on your own. Guido Van Ryssegem, ATC, RN, CSCS, says to vary your movement, range of motion and timing to support resilience in ones athletic training. Try and notice the variations in your breath patterns. By noticing the differences, see if you can find the most efficient way to breathe under varied conditions.

4. Play with symmetry. Physical therapist Gray Cook is a great supporter of refining movement symmetry before loading strength. Try this. Pretend you are throwing a ball in your dominant hand. Now switch and do it with your non-dominant hand and repeat the movement pattern. Was it as graceful, smooth and effortless? Did you stop your breathing? Before you address what muscles you were not working, feel for the differences in the whole movement and find ways to move towards a more symmetrical pattern.

Functional strength is very important for vitality and well being. Isolating muscles to strengthen them, even important muscles like the abdominals, can interfere with the way we recruit them. We need to look at how we integrate and organize our strength into our daily movements. Personally, I plan to keep following the experts, like baby Liv.

Additional References:

Stacy Barrows, PT, GCFP, PMA-CPT is co-owner of Century City Physical Therapy,Inc. and the inventor and author of the Smartroller® book and products.

For more information on Century City PT click here.

More information about Stacy click here.

for more by Stacy Barrows, click here.

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