The core is NOT the key to spinal health and good performance.
Contemporary fitness pays a lot of attention to the core because the core is the essence of good posture and the sound mechanics of any movements. Or is it?
The short answer is NO. A strong core is no guarantee of good posture and improved performance. In reality, the core does support the posture. Any posture. Good posture, bad posture - the strengthened core will make it better…or worse. The same is true for the performance. It might not make sense at the first glance but it will shortly. Let’s take it one step a time. What is the core?
The six-packs - the core? No. That venerable muscle is called Rectus Abdominis. It is only one of a few more. External Oblique, Internal Oblique, Transversus Oblique. These four the core? Still No. Here is what we should consider the core:
I might have missed one or two groups, I apologize for it. Of course, those 27 muscles exist on the left and the right sides of the body which gives us 54 muscles. Imagine a core session where the main idea of training is individualization. Your family will not see you for weeks after you have gone to the gym for a nice morning core workout. The criteria to attribute that to another muscle to the core group was based on the condition:
If a muscle has spine-pelvis, spine-rib cage, spine-scapulas, spine-clavicle, or rib cage - clavicle projections or not.
Thus contraction - especially unilateral - of the aforementioned muscles can throw the spine alignment out of balance hence compromising the stability and therefore efficiency of any movements. Imagine running with the left Latissimus Dorsi or Quadrartus Lumborum
slightly or significantly tighter/engaged than the right one. Not cool.
Training those muscles individually in the pursuit of developing a strong core is tantalizing and calamitous. Naturally, the crunches are not great. Because not only those muscles must be strong they - or more precisely the brain - must know how to work them in concert. The synchronization of the muscle work resembles a piano tuning, with one little difference. In a piano, the tightness of a single string doesn’t affect the tightness of another string, whereas in a human body a tightness of one muscle greatly affects the tightness of a few adjacent and a few opposite muscles. It leaves us with a stupendous number of possible combinations of the core muscles engagement scenarios.
Let me just keep scarring you for a while more before revealing the conclusion. Remember I mentioned at the beginning that the core didn’t guarantee a good alignment? It still doesn’t. Here is what a good alignment/posture is made of.
A good posture is a spinal alignment that results in optimal joint angles and muscle engagements delivering the most strength, power, stamina, and balance with no damage to the physical structures while performing a physical task.
In a healthy individual with no extra muscle tensions or anything of the kind, the spine by design is slightly arched in the lower part and rounded in its upper portion. Exaggeration of the arch or the roundness will lead to utterly inefficient mechanics of movements making the structure susceptible to pulls, strains, injuries, and chronic pains. On this account, the general and old fashion in my view advice “Keep the spine straight” is incorrect. Instead, we should say “Keep the spine neutral”.
One thing to keep in mind is that the neutral spine does not mean a vertical spine. As we move around placing the torso in many different angles we need to maintain the neutral position of the spine not arching or banding it beyond its neutral. In other words, a good posture must be dynamically adjustable. To do so we need to take care of three main components.
Picture a tall tower supported by guy-wires from all sides and situated in a picturesque environment.
Let’s draw some analogies to establish three key components:
The tower and its foundation - the spine and the pelvis.
The guy-wires - the core muscles.
A picturesque environment - the way you perform the movements.
As long as the tightness of the guy-wires are adjusted well and the tower stays in a non-hostile environment (no extreme cold, heat, or wind) the tower will keep its structure and integrity well. Now imagine that the same tower is made not of steel but rubber instead. Suddenly the task of keeping its alignment and integrity becomes very difficult because every individual guy-wire pull will cause the tower to bend somewhere else. And the stronger guy-wires are the more bending there will be somewhere in the tower’s structure. Add to it a slight change in the environment, say wind (gentle movement - walking, jogging, etc) - and the quest for a good alignment gets out of reach.
The strong guy-wires (core) are good only if the tower (spine) has a solid structure and stays in a good environment (correct movements). Besides the core muscles I have already listed above, there are other muscles, which are attached to different segments of the spine connecting one vertebra to another. These spinal muscles have “spine - spine” projections thereby providing the structural solidity of thereof. In other words, they make your tower steel or extremely tough rubber making the work of the core easier and effective. Here are these muscles:
Intertransversarii medialis lumborum
Rotatores Thorasic Longi
Rotatores Thorasic Breves
As with the core muscles they exist in pairs - lefts and rights. So 20 in total. I swear I did not look them up in a Harry Potter school book. These are real names. Now we can answer the question of how to create a solid posture with a robust core.
Improve the rigidity of the spinal muscles
Improve the core muscles’ strength, power, stamina, coordination
Improve the way you move
These three steps must be done in this order otherwise the effectiveness of the training as a whole might be compromised. In my next post, I will tell you how to address step one, for it is a bit tricky since as soon as you place the spine at any but 90-degree angle to the surface the core muscles will be activated stealing the workload from the spinal muscles. Step two has its moments as typical drills like crunches, side crunches, and others alike promote bending the spine and condition only some of the guy-wires throwing the balance off. In step three the way you move the arms-shoulders, legs-pelvis needs to be tuned because often dut to our convenient and mostly sedentary lifestyle we develop linkages between muscles that are not meant to be linked together. For example, you lift the knee off the floor while standing and the abs kick in getting you into a slight crunch, or you raise the arm and the mid-back muscles kick in arching your spine thereby limiting the shoulders’ mobility. The list goes on and on.
We are all born with a fixed amount of spinal health currency, say a million dollars. This is your lifetime budget. Every time you band - you chip a tiny bit of it away. For example, when you band
an extremely rounded spine with five kilos in your hands - $10 is gone. You do the same but with the neutral spine - $1, same with no weight - $0.1. Not to mention the walking. If with each step your spine unnecessarily bends a little to the left or the right chipping away one cent each time … 5 000 steps per day …per week … per month … per year ….1 820 00 cents ($18 200 ) are gone. Figuratively speaking of course. Add to it jogging, biking, running, hiking, sitting, everyday bending, sleeping in awkward positions, doing sports, competing, working …
You will pay in any way, the question is how much. If you absolutely have to bend, at least, do it most efficiently and safely possible. Otherwise, find another way of achieving the same goal but with a neutral spine. Preserve your health and make you budged last well into your 100s.