by Adam Brown
updated July 18, 2020
A lot of buzz has been circling around core exercise lately. A good understanding of how these muscles function –and why they should be trained- is important for injury treatment and prevention.
Why All the Fuss About Core?
Lower back pain is the most common musculoskeletal complaint in the developed world. Up to 80% of people will suffer from it at some point in their lifetime. This causes an immense burden on a person’s quality of life and represents a hefty cost to our health care system. Developing a healthy, fit core is one of the best ways to prevent and treat lower back pain.
Our spines are injured when the physical demands placed on them exceed the stability of its joints. Joint stability is determined by a combination of inert structures (the shape of the bones and strength of the ligaments) and contractile structures (the core muscles). While we cannot do anything about the bony shape of our spines, core exercise -when done correctly- helps to thicken ligamentous structures and improve muscle function.
Performing core exercise correctly is important. From our experience, the fitness industry often misses the boat on helping people to train their core properly. Doing core exercise poorly not only inhibits prevention of injury but it can also cause injury. Below are a few of the most common errors that we see:
The Focus on Core Strength
“Core strength” has become a popular phrase, but adding strength to your core does not necessarily give you a healthier spine. Most people have the strength they need to avoid injury, and have the sense to avoid lifting weights outside of their abilities but what they lack is good muscular endurance.
When people are required to do tasks for longer than a few minutes at a time they require the muscles that stabilize their spine to be able to provide consistent contraction for the duration of the activity. Exercise prescription should be guided by this fact, and it should shift a focus toward longer exercises that involve many reps per set.
The Focus on a Core Session
Doing some specific exercises that target your core toward the end of your workout (after the more complex lifts and maneuvers are out of the way) is a great addition to your routine, but it is important to remember that every exercise you do should involve your core.
Whether you are performing a squat, a shoulder press or running on the treadmill, your core is required to stabilize your spine against the forces you place on it. Staying mindful of this fact can cue you to activate the muscles, producing a stable midsection when performing all of your exercises. What better way to train for endurance and prevent gym injuries than to make your whole workout a core workout?
The most common problem that we see in the clinic is poor form; plank position is the classic example. Many people proudly state their ability to hold plank for a minute or two each time they work out. However, when they demonstrate, it’s clear that their lumbar spine is arched into extension and the joints of their spine are supporting them – not their abdominal muscles. When this error is corrected they quickly learn that they can do a proper plank for about 20 seconds.
As a general rule, the joints of your spine should be in a neutral position while exercising. This means that they are in the middle of their range of motion, where they are unlikely to become injured and where the muscles (not the ligaments and bony structures) are preventing movement. If you feel pressure in the joints of your lower back when you are doing core exercises, chances are that you’re doing them wrong.
The principle of specificity is one of the guiding principles of physical training. It states that our physiological systems will get better at handing the exact demands placed upon them when exercising. This means that when we do the same exercise over and over again, our bodies get better at doing that exercise with very limited carry-over to other tasks.
For that reason, it is important to have a wide variety of ways to work your core muscles, and to switch it up often. This will produce well-rounded strength and endurance in everything you do.
As you can see, a lot goes into the development of a good training plan. Your physiotherapist can help you to consider your current fitness level, your desired activities and your own lifestyle factors to produce the right plan for you.
Adam Brown MClScPT
Adam is a registered physiotherapy and a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Manipulative Physiotherapy. He mentors physiotherapists on exercise therapy and maintains teaching engagements with Western University’s School of Physical Therapy.
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