A weak core is said to cause back pain, sciatica, and many others. The problem is, there's no such thing as a "weak core".
"…I have a weak core. My Doctor told me because I'm sitting all day, this is why I have back pain".
"Well, you've got to get your chest up and your hips back; your knees are coming too far forward."
"I feel it, but my core is weak. I've been doing sit-ups and leg raises to get my abs stronger, what else can I do?"
So, there I was, stuck, staring at Jeff with this look of bewilderment. Do my ears deceive me, or did I just hear what I thought I heard? I think I heard my client tell me his core was weak…what exactly does this mean? Quickly, I decided to abandon my attempt to figure out what the hell he was talking about but it's too late, Jeff begins to restate,
"What can I do for my weak core?"
Yup, there it is… I'm dumbfounded. It was the absolute most ridiculous thing I've heard since the last time I heard someone say it.
Now, before anyone gets mad, I don't blame Jeff for this cockamamie assertion, and I don't mean that in a condescending or disrespectful way. It's not exclusively his fault that these are the words he uses to describe these things.
He's referring to it as though it were a syndrome, and syndromes are sometimes ambiguous. Some are kinda diseases, kinda not. Often, we're relegated to treating the symptoms of syndromes hoping to chip away them, unable to nail down and treat the root cause.
This isn't a syndrome Jeff's talking about, but because the "weak core" can be taken to mean so many different things, we take it was being all of them at the same time.
That's why I don't blame Jeff, I blame our innate compulsion for over-simplification.
Who is This Jeff Guy?
Jeff and I have been working together for about 9 weeks, he's hired me to manage his fitness and coach a few workouts a week for him. I've seen him move. I've seen him fatigue, and I've seen him pull his form back in-bounds after he gets tired. Jeff has better- than-average body awareness and has exercised for most of his 60 years on this planet.
We assessed the major movement patterns as they relate to his posture, and his mechanical inclinations as they relate to his movement. After 60 years… heck, after just 25 years we see that continuously repetitive movements accumulate into unevenness and postural imbalances.
The Wrong Side is Your Strong Side
You're right-hand dominant, and perhaps right-foot dominant, as well. It would stand to reason that the right side of your core is your "strong" side, wouldn't it?
Well, it's probably not.
A right-handed person would lean over to the right to grab a purse, gym bag, suitcase, bag of groceries, whatever, because we use that right hand to carry and manage heavy things. This same person often slings whatever they've just picked up over the same shoulder to carry it to wherever it's going.
When you lean over to the side and pick up your gym bag, the muscles on the far side of your body are lengthening to accommodate for the stretch. Now that you've grabbed the handle those same muscles need to shorten (under tension) and prop you back upright. These muscles are now contracted and responsible for holding this tension for as long as you're holding the bag (or standing upright).
Now ask yourself: Which side of your core is the "strong" side?
It's Much Bigger Than You Think
Let's quickly define "core". Your "core" is your Lumbo-Pelvic-Hip Complex.
As in "more complex than just your abs".
This means that every muscle responsible for movement around any of the joints in your Lumbar Spine-Pelvis-Hip Complex is a core muscle.
I'll give you one guess how many muscles are actually in your "core".
Pick a number from 1 to 30.
The answer – 29
You're Not Weak… You're Just Lopsided.
It's true. After tens of thousands of repetitive movements and years' worth of accumulated bad postures some muscles will inevitably shorten, and others will inevitably lengthen. Think of it as a tug-of-war between the muscles you're training to stay short vs the muscles you're not training to do anything. Eventually the muscles that get the most activity will shorten. As these muscles shorten, their counterparts stretch to accommodate the increased tension on the other side of the rope. With every reinforcing repetition, the condition gets worse and the body literally changes shape.
Being weak has nothing to do with it. Those "weak" muscles still maintain mass and can shorten against resistance. It's these "tight" muscles that have become conditioned to maintain greater tension at rest and during movement. If you call upon a set of muscles to do a particular activity the inherently tighter muscles will then dominate the movement or posture – cue Jeff's squat: rounded back, slouched shoulders, and hip-flexors pulling the knees forward.
Jeff's been doing things his certain way for 60 years. Not to mention that for the last 30 years Jeff has been sitting at a desk for 10 hours a day and sitting in traffic for another two. That's 12 hours every day resting in the same contracted, jacked-up position. These manifest themselves in so many different ways, certainly among them are imbalanced muscle patterns that pull Jeff's squat form out-of-bounds.
Another way they manifest is lower back pain, especially after he stands up from sitting.
Another is his slouched standing posture, flat ass, and flat feet… yes, really, flat feet.
These postural malalignments have nothing to do with a certain muscle being necessarily "weak". It actually has very little to do with it. And, once we can all start referring to it for what it really is, then the sooner we can properly address it and do something about it.
Pouring Gas on the Fire
One of the ironies is that in Jeff's case (and so many others), these crunches and leg raises are only making these problems worse.
The "abs", as in rectus abdominus? Inherently over-active.
The hip-flexors… particularly the psoas muscle? This muscle single-handedly connects your lumbar spine to your hip and shortening it will only exacerbate so many ails (leg raises, in fact, are a psoas exercise, not an "ab" exercise).
The last thing in the world that Jeff wants to do is continue to strengthen the muscles that are contributing to his poor posture and deteriorating squats.
Arbitrarily performing "core" exercises to arbitrarily address a "weak core" could certainly make things worse. With 29 separate core muscles, your chances of guessing it correctly are 1 in 8.8 decillion, good luck.
Do This, Don't Do That
Rather than strengthening your core, you need to ensure postural symmetry. It starts simply with awareness. We need to be aware of what proper movement FEELS like… how exactly it feels to be in a neutral posture. Keep in mind that neutral won't necessarily mean comfortable, it depends on how far off you are now. It might take a significant amount of energy to achieve the proper activation of the core, neutral curvatures of a healthy spine, and proper orientation of the hips.
Once we know where neutral is, we know how to find it. For some people, simply finding it takes more work than others, but for most it's often much easier than you think. The tissues responsible for the problems will differ from person to person, so it's important to be extremely careful assessing and determining exactly which ones are the culprits and what programs and techniques are most appropriate.
Over time and through repetitive reinforcement Jeff will continue to untie this postural knot he's been tying for the last 60 years. He's already standing taller, sleeping better, squatting more efficiently, walking without orthotics in his shoes, and more capable of doing so many more things – simply because he's accepted that his core is not weak, at all. In fact, it's quite the opposite – it's just a little too strong in certain places.
Like Jeff, your core isn't weak. You've just been paying it the wrong attention.
Matthew A. Scarfo firstname.lastname@example.org