So we all do core exercises right? Or least know that we should? But has anyone ever questioned why? I mean they all look a bit peculiar to me. Are they useful for anything else other than just for the sake of doing them? As a sceptical Sports Therapist and questioner of all things Physiotherapy and Sports Therapy we will question their clinical benefit and review my 4 year experiment of not doing any core exercises.
What Are Core Muscles Anyway?
Core muscles are a man-made concept 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 core muscles. The classic one is the infamous Plank! As shown in the picture. 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 (see picture lower in the article), Russian Twists – which really work your obliques – as an aside this one is a real money spinner for any Physiotherapist or Sports Therapist, the number of times we’ve seen “low back” problems caused by this exercise.
I’m going to mention sit ups here. Probably considered one of the first core exercises as they’ve been around for so long. Technically speaking they’re not a core exercise. They work you Rectus Abdominus (your six pack in plain English) which isn’t one of your core muscles. But so many people still do them. For life of me I have no idea why! See below…
Where Did It All 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 that this seems to be the case.
The problem however was with the conclusion that was drawn by many in the world of physiotherapy. The idea was that it we train transverse abdominus we remove back pain. Way too simplistic!
Are They Really Functional?
Let’s have a look at the exercises themselves. Consider your favourite core exercise. How does that apply to any aspect of your life other than actually doing that exercise? Does it help you perform anything from your sport? Does it help with your posture? Probably the opposite – they could make you more rigid.
I’ve analysed the Plank as an exercise and the only thing I can think it can be any use for is holding in a big poo! (Performing the valsalva manoeuvre as we like to put it in the trade). Let’s take sit ups – I know not technically a core exercise but does involve elements thereof. How many times a day do you need to go from laying flat to a curled up position? Once, when you get up in the morning.
I’m not sure it needs to be repeated hundreds of times a day. Just in pursuit of vanity. If your body fat is low enough you will see your six pack. Yes you can train the muscle, but it should be as part of much wider full body functional training.
Why Could They Be Bad?
Firstly sit ups make you walk around like a monkey! If you over train any muscle it becomes shorter and tighter – just ask any body builder to lift their arms above their head and laugh at the results. If you train your 6-pack too much it pulls you forward causing the muscles in the back to work harder and hey presto back pain!
When doing the plank, yes it works your tranverse abdominus. But as soon as it tires out the body looks for help. From muscles that aren’t that well equipped to perform the function – this is when the full body shake comes in! Asking muscles to do jobs they’re not designed too increases risk of injury.
Finally the whole idea means many people believe we should perform exercise and movement with a rigid core. When a muscle is tight is doesn’t perform as well. When it is loose and relaxed it has more room to contract and so performs better. Tensing up to try and do any movement is just backwards!
Always think fluid movements and be “loose as a goose!”
Is There Anything Good About Them?
Well I guess so. At least the idea of core muscles and people being aware of them opens there eyes to how they hold and carry themselves. This one of the major factors we see in all of our clients. Imbalances in their body brought on by prolonged periods of poor posture. If core exercise opens the debate on how we hold ourselves then that is a positive thing at least.
What Happens When You Don’t Do Them?
Ah yes. Well yours truly has done an inadvertent experiment on this one. Changing priorities have meant that I’ve not done any core exercise in the last 4 years! It’s not laziness honest, I’ve just had better things to do. Namely swimming and running. Initially this was accidental as time was limited and gym membership was dropped as part of the move to Brighton. But after a while this became deliberate as I increasingly began to question the whole concept of the core.
My findings? Well I’ve had one injury in four years. And that was the present Mrs. Webb’s fault! The conversation went like this:
Mrs Webb: “Are you doing the Steyning Stinger?”
Mr Webb: “It’s in 4 weeks and I’m only up to 5 miles in training at the moment.”
Mrs Webb: “Go on, I’m doing it.”
Mr Webb: “Oh all right then.”
Fast forward 6 weeks and hello stress fracture! The morals of this story:
- Never listen to the wife!
- Don’t increase your training too quickly
- As a Sports Therapist do what you know you should!
Would core training have made a difference? Probably not. Would not wearing off road trainers on a 10 mile run when the ground was baked like concrete? Possibly yes.
So is there any other downside to not doing any specific core training. Honestly I think my posture might be a bit worse, it’s a bit harder to maintain good posture when sitting for long periods – but I’ve had a busy few years, that might be more of a factor than lack of core training.
Is There An Alternative?
So if we’re ditching the core exercises what should we be doing? Well anything you fancy really. Anything that is functional for the sport or activity your are training for. If you spend all day sitting on your backside use the challenge of sitting with good posture as your training.
But what does functional training mean. When you get involved in any sports club you’ll see functional training going on all over the place. It’s literally preparing your body for what you want it to do, and do well. Lets take an example from my sport swimming. So we do lots of lengths up and down but also mix the strokes up, even the ones we’re not as good at. We also break it down into it’s elemental components. We do leg kick only and pull only. Both of which involve coordinating the upper or lower body with the core – but so many more muscles too. It’s not just about the core it’s about the coordination of your muscles from top to toe to preform the movement that you want.
In the gym what should you do instead of a boring old sit up? There’s so many option but a really great all round body exercise is a Turkish get up. Follow the link here to check it out. Ok so granted that looks hard. And trust me it is (if you do try please use a very light weight to start!). But I wanted to show you an example of an exercise that uses all of the body together, yes it uses the core muscles, but it uses so many more all over the body as well. Remember core is just a man made concept. The human body… well maybe that’s a theological discussion for another time!
So was I right to completely dismiss core exercise probably not. Was I right to dismiss core exercise in it’s stereotypical form – I still think yes. I’m not sure the plank is much use to anyone. And sit ups certainly aren’t. If you’d like to test it do 100 sit ups a day see how long it is before you have to come and see us!
My personal and professional experience make me believe that core muscle function is the same as any other body part. A small factor in us as a 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 to co-ordinate 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?
Probably most important for sports and non sporting people if the “idea” of the core muscles and it’s use holding yourself in good posture. This is a modern and useful application of the concept of core muscles and I’m all for it. But this is certainly not the 100% contraction of the plank!
If you have an questions about Core Exercise and would like to know more about what you should and shouldn’t be going to improve posture and ease injuries then give us a call on 01793 613352 or mail us at info@SwindonSportsTherapy.co.uk.
This article first appeared on our Brighton site.