Core exercise is synonymous with physiotherapy. For many years core exercise has been blamed for all kinds of bodily pain and dysfunction and extolled as the magic panacea of athletic performance. But is this true? Are these claims that magical muscles in our midriff help almost any condition and improve our performance?
Our experience at Brighton Physiotherapy & Sports Therapy would suggest otherwise. In our opinion whilst core exercise can be a useful part of rehabilitation and performance training it is not the be all that perhaps is has been made out to be.
In this article we’ll explain the rationale for our opinion using the latest research and explain what we think core exercise can and should be as part of a fully functional whole body. Enabling to you achieve whatever you want with your body.
What Are Core Muscles?
Core muscles are a man-made concept used to describe the muscles around our trunk and abdomen that are thought to help us brace our low back and abdomen. Specifically they are defined as Transverse Abdominus (the one that goes across the bottom of your tummy), Obliques (the muscles in your side that help with rotation), Multifidus and Rotatores (small little muscles that attach to the spine and support it).
What Are Core Exercises?
Anything involving the core muscles we mention above. Which, in reality, is pretty much any movement you can think of! Walking, running, sitting, football, cycling, diving… you get the idea.
In training terms probably the most famous core exercise is The Plank. This is where you squeeze everything inside you as if your life depended on it for as long as possible and shake like a jelly as one by one your muscles give up the ghost.
It’s near cousin the Side Plank is another classic which is more targeted to the obliques. As are Russian Twists, which is a more intense way to train obliques. This one is a real money spinner for Physiotherapists and Sports Therapists! We often see “low back” problems caused by this exercise.
The list of core exercises goes on: V Sits, Four Point Kneeling, Dead Bug… there’s a lot. And that’s before we even consider more whole body exercises that, as we’ll show later in the article, may actually be more effective for training your core.
It’s worth noting that sit ups are not technically core exercises. Probably a muscle which most of us would associate with the core. The reason being your six pack (rectus abdominus) is not considered to be a core muscle. When you consider that the rectus abdominus is actually the most superficial muscle of the corset like structure that surrounds our core this feels a little odd. The obliques sit underneath the rectus abdominus and then the tranverse abdominus sits underneath that. But they are all very much connected to each other. As I said, it is just a man-made concept to approximate what is going on.
Where Did The Concept Of Core Exercise Begin?
By definition “core” muscles have been around for thousands of years. But why did people first define core muscles? Secondly why did everyone jump on the band wagon?! With my cynical hat on I could say that these muscles were defined because people were making money out of the “core” industry. Making money out of people’s desire to have the ripped physic that adorns Men’s and Women’s Health every month.
You can read more about this in this great paper by Professor Eyal Lederman ‘The Myth of Core Stability’ where he claims: ‘The division of the trunk into core and global muscle system is a reductionist fantasy, which serves only to promote the core stability (industry)’.
But why then did Physiotherapists jump on the band wagon too? Well there was a bit of research that has been done over and over in various guises since the mid 1980’s. This showed that the Transverse Abdominus muscle was inhibited in the majority of patients with low back pain. A very good bit of research and I absolutely agree this does seem to be the case.
The problem I have however was with the conclusion that was drawn by many in the world of physiotherapy that if we train transverse abdominus we remove back pain. Which is assuming that this is the cause of the pain, rather than a symptom of it.
As it mentions in this article ‘Surprisingly, most (core) exercise specifications have not been tested for their effectiveness’
Are Core Exercises Really Functional?
Think about plank. Does that equate to anything in your life? Granted if you’re an Olympic gymnast doing lots of static holds on the bars or the Olympic rings then yes they probably are. But that minority aside what else is it functional for? Does it help you perform any sport or your life any better? Does it help with your posture? In our experience having too tense a core causes problems rather than solves them.
We’re not saying you shouldn’t train your core. We’re saying you should really think about how you’re training your core and base it on what you’re trying to achieve. For those in pain we find that when we release core muscles with our hands on treatment and movement pattern work we invariable make thing better.
Loosening is better than tightening in our experience. I understand this goes against the grain. But for most of us loosening is strengthening. You see if a muscle becomes too tight it doesn’t work as efficiently as it should. It’s tired and tight and the muscle doesn’t contract as well. If we lengthen we restore the muscle’s optimal length et voila, we have less pain.
There is a small minority who should be mentioned here and that is people who are hypermobile. Those people are more likely to need to strengthen and shorten. That said, hypermobility is hugely over diagnosed in our opinion and barring people on the extreme end of the hypermobility / Ehlers Danlos spectrum shouldn’t be released. We go into more detail on this in our previous hypermobility article.
In our opinion core work will naturally happen as part of bigger genuinely functional movements. If you want to strengthen your core for tennis play tennis. If you want to strengthen your core for football, play football.
This is backed up by this piece of research here which suggests:
‘…the activation of the abdominal and lumbar muscles was the greatest during the exercises that required deltoid and gluteal recruitment.’
That’s muscles in your bottom and shoulder for those not down with the lingo. We’re not saying that there aren’t great core exercises for specific sports. But we are saying they should probably involve your whole body and look a lot like the sport you’re trying to do. If you’re just training so you want to sit better and take pressure of your back, you should probably just sit better. Here’s how you do that:
When Can Core Exercise Be Bad?
Firstly let’s say there are very few ‘bad’ exercises. Generally if we’re doing exercise and moving our bodies or working our muscles that is good for us on many levels. We have three very distinct issues with core muscles that could be perceived to have a ‘bad’ or undesirable impact on our body.
The first is over doing them. In the fitness community this is quite common. See previous section on issues with muscles that are too tight.
Secondly, when it hurts. We have seen so many cases over the years where people have been given core exercises to help their condition and it’s made things worse. Why would core exercise exacerbate problems? There are many possible reason but let’s consider and example using the picture below:
Most core exercise will involve using the core muscles (obliques) shown above. Imagine these muscles shortening. Bringing the rib cage closer to the pelvis. Can you imagine how that could possibly give a more compressive force across the low back? So creating less space for the spine to do what it needs to do. The spine is the source of the pain, but the cause is the excess tension in the obliques.
Finally, vanity. If you’re doing core exercise to make your stomach look good, stop! This is one of the most common reasons we see for over working the core muscles leading to problems. You can’t lose fat by training the muscles underneath. It just doesn’t work that way. If you want to see your abs you need to reduce your body fat. It’s as simple as that. Whether you should be striving for that rippling six pack is another discussion all together.
I’d like to consider another concern I have about tight core muscles. Reach as high as you can for something on the shelf or just reach as high up as you can with your arm. Now tense your core muscles as tight as you can and try again. You should find you can’t reach as high. This mimics the affect on function of core muscles that are held too tense.
Remember, at the clinic in the vast majority of cases, when we loosen core muscles with our hands on techniques we make conditions better. Whether that be knee, back, shoulder, or anywhere on the body.
Is There Anything Good About Core Exercise?
Yes. As I mentioned above, movement is generally good. Challenging our bodies is generally good. And, most importantly, if you’ve found benefit from your core routine previously then by all means crack on.
What we’re trying to do here is free people up from feeling obliged to do specific core exercises when the rationale for doing them is not as clear cut as possibly has been made out. And secondly trying were try to encourage core work to be view as a more whole body truly functional experience. Being able to contract the core is great, but can it relax, release and elongate too?
What Happens When You Don’t Do Core Exercises?
Ever the scientist a few years back I experimented on myself and stopped doing any specific core strength training. It was kind of accidental. I didn’t have any gym membership and I’m not good at doing any training at home.
I was still running, swimming and playing beach volleyball. All sports that involve significant use of core muscles. Did I notice a drop off in training or ability? I can’t say I did. Did I notice an increase in injuries? Not really.
What I did notice when I started going back to the gym was that my core was as strong as ever but I found it harder to hold contractions for longer periods. My core muscles weren’t conditioned for longer holds. The sports I had been doing just didn’t require them. They are more free flowing and constantly adapting.
That’s just my story. Just work out what balance works for you. If you already do a lot of core perhaps try some yin yoga to help relax those core muscles. If you’ve not done any before maybe try some and see how it feels. There is no hard and fast rule.
What Core Exercises Would We Recommend?
Well any really. But all in moderation. If you’re in pain we wouldn’t really recommend core exercises. Certainly improving your awareness of your core muscles and how they can help you in better alignment is useful. As in the pelvis alignment sitting video above. But not necessarily a specific core strength exercise. The sitting ‘technique’ teaches awareness of appropriate level of engagement of core muscles. Rather than an all off or all on thought on muscle contraction. We describe it as about a 30% contraction.
For pain we generally find movement the best remedy. The simplest form of which is walking. As we describe above we don’t want those core muscles constantly held too tight. We find stretching generally better for those in pain than strengthening. We don’t want to train muscles to be tighter or reinforce a way of using the core that caused the pain in the first place.
The exercise in the video below is what we consider an entry level core exercise. If you’re new to core work it’s a great one to try. Equally if you think you’ve got a good core it’s a great one to try to ensure that you really do. It’s about the quality of the core contraction.
We don’t recommend this for anyone in significant amounts of pain. The exercise shown here is an example of what we do with our clients in person to test core strength. If you choose to attempt this without supervision you do so at your own risk.
But as we’ve said the evidence suggests that we need to look beyond specific core contraction. This article here recommends free weight exercises rather than core-specific exercises.
A nice real life example of this would a Turkish get up. If you’ve not seen one before you can watch the video here. For those non athletes this may look somewhat intimidating. Even those more experienced should start with a light weight. I use it here to demonstrate how whole body core training can be.
Do Core Exercises Help Performance?
We’ve spoken so far about pain and performance. Day to day at the clinic we tend to deal more with pain. But as we help people function in a better way we can use the same approach to aid performance. As such we help some of our clients to optimise their performance, rather than reduce their pain. This is why we’re interested.
As always there is conflicting research as to how effective core training is in performance. This review piece here suggests the link between core training and performance is lacking. Whereas this piece here suggests that a group of 5000m runners did improve their times, although not the amount of power their legs produced. For me this suggests that’s perhaps the core training helped with dynamic alignment and perhaps made them more efficient runners. The first research paper is a review of lots of core research. Whereas the second one was done on 28 people. Read into that what you will.
For me these two conflicting ideas is further fuel for what we’re trying to say. If core exercises work for you great. Crack on keep doing them. If they don’t, don’t feel obliged to do them. In the 5000m runners above perhaps they can help, but so can training smarter and resting better as we talk about in our previous article Peak Performance.
Core Exercise Conclusion
My personal and professional experience make me believe that core muscle function is the same as any other body part. A small part of the whole. We should train it in functional way to help us do exactly what it is that we want to do. In sport this may be using part of our core muscles as part of the whole co-ordinated movement for swimming, running, shot put, javelin but there are so many more muscles that are involved in these movements. Why just train the core in isolation?
The same for people in pain. By all mean try core exercises to remedy your low back pain but that isn’t working, especially if it’s been worse since you started, do something different. Walking more as pain allows would be a good start. Relaxation breathing would be another.
We’ve tried to move you away from the idea of a solid, bracing contraction of the core muscles to the idea that the muscles can contracted fully, relaxed fully and everything in between. That variety of states is more important for full core function that is integrated with the rest of the body for full range of motion, less pain and better function.
The idea of using your core a little bit to hold you in good posture is a good example of the appropriate use of core muscles in a very functional, day to day, practical way. And it’s free core training without having to go to the gym!
We hope you found our alternative take on core exercises interesting, useful and thought provoking. If you have an questions about Core Exercises, performance or any injuries or pain you have then please click here and fill out the form with your details on and we’ll give you a call to discuss.