The amount of information out there about the importance of core strength can be overwhelming. I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had come to me broadly claiming to need core strength to help relieve chronic discomfort and ongoing back pain but without any real idea of what that should look like or where to start. In this blog post, I’ll present 3 myths about core strength and what to do instead. The goal here is to help you regain natural and functional strength without feeling like you have to “suck it in” all the time, get a skinnier waistline, or hold the perfect posture every second of the day. Are you ready? Let’s go!
A strong core means a skinny waistline.
Now, these things are broadly related but it’s absolutely a myth that you need an hourglass figure in order to have a strong core. I’ve had many petite clients with very poor functional strength. Overfocusing on weight loss and the size of your jeans can lead to overtraining, inappropriate training, and increased stress on your joints, ligaments, and bones. Not to mention an increased sense of expectation, pressure, or shame about what you are trying to accomplish. The neuromuscular coordination of your core strength and your ability to support your spine through movement and daily activity has very little to do with how much padding you may or may not have on top of those muscles.
What to do instead
Okay, I love this one! My hope is that this makes core strengthening feel easier and more accessible for you. I suggest that you separate your need or desire for a skinny waistline from the need or desire for healthy functional strength. Simply drawing this distinction can have significant changes in the decisions that you make going forward. So, Step One is building a foundation of healthy movement and individualized strength. From there your body will have the resiliency required to potentially start doing more intense workouts that lead to significant weight loss, if that’s even part of your goal. What’s more, chronic pain and achy joints can lead to depressive tendencies that can result in overeating or spending long hours without any movement.
you always want to stabilize a perfect posture
Gaining core strength and improving spinal stability doesn’t mean that you're trying to become a robot! It is possible to have too much of a good thing. After all, we still need to be able to move! What’s more significant still, is that when we over-focus on stabilization it’s often to the detriment of natural breathing, which can lead to things like becoming a neck breather, triggering the fight or flight response (which actually builds cortisol, and from there weight-gain) and can even contribute to incontinence and pelvic floor dysfunction, not to mention knee pain or faulty movement mechanics up and down the body. I’ve personally had to retrain myself from this. Especially in the pilates world, there is a tendency to obsess about spinal stability and it’s all from a place of good intention, but I’ve experienced firsthand how this actually contributed to my neck pain and faulty movement mechanics.
What to do instead
build awareness around your individual movement habits and ultimately seek to build strength and stability within an environment of dynamic movement. Learning to stabilize a neutral spine is a tool and not the end goal.
If you have back pain it means that you have poor core strength
This one is a little trickier because there is more truth in this statement than in the other two. It’s still a myth in terms of what people often do as a result of this mindset. I want to share this quick story of a lovely client that I worked with for a while in my therapeutic group class. She had significant scoliosis and muscle imbalance and had been given a series of very strenuous and very generic exercises by a chiropractor. She had been given that list of exercises nearly 20 years prior and was still doing those same exercises every day! Even when her back flared up and she regularly complained of tension. In the small group class setting, I worked with her regularly to integrate variations, or use props in a way that would support her unique alignment. But here’s the thing. She was so attached to the goal of core strength that she didn’t question the application of those exercises to the unique needs of her body. She had skipped over my first two principles of restorative movement, awareness, and dynamic mobility. Because she was unaware of her unique posture, she lacked the knowledge of what parts of her spine needed to stretch and what needed to strengthen. As a result, she jumped straight into the strength exercises which ultimately resulted in her training the muscle imbalance further into her spine.
You see, imbalanced strength always leads to imbalanced pressure on joints, bones, and posture. Another way to say this is that the stronger you are the more potential you have to actually build and reinforce imbalanced patterns.
What to do instead
If you feel stiff and achy and want to improve your functional movement, then the first step is self-awareness (along with a good old consult with your doctor and potentially an X-ray or MRI). The second step is an assessment of your posture and movement patterns. Core strength plays a big role in improving healthy movement but you need to get clear on what parts need to strengthen and what parts need to stretch, and that’s going to be unique for each and every one of us. In other words, more is not better. Slowing down enough to focus on your alignment, and build self-awareness is key. Gaining the support of a skilled practitioner is invaluable here as well, even if you ultimately practice a lot of the exercises on your own time.