Awareness: an alternative approach to core strength and stability

Painful Sit-up
Many students say to me at their first private Functional Integration lesson something like “I know I need to strengthen my core.” (This is almost as common as “I know I have bad posture”). Sometimes they refer to their own experience, telling me that they feel weak, or that they tire easily, but more often their personal experience is simply that their back or neck hurts, and they heard from someone (often a skilled Physical Therapist or yoga teacher) that the pain in their back is due to weak “core” muscles.

When I help them feel what they’re actually doing, it usually turns out that they’re tightening those “core” abdominal muscles all the time. No wonder they feel weak! If a muscle is always engaged, it has less strength to engage further -- its potential is already in use. They would do better to learn to relax their muscles, engaging them only when they need to.

Why are my students doing this? Ultimately, I think it’s because they are not really aware of what they are doing. While the well-meaning person who suggested they strengthen their core may have had a specific and even effective way of moving in mind (and more on that in another post), most people understand “strengthen the core” to mean “tighten the belly,” with no clear sense of what they are trying to do in the moment, or awareness of what they are actually doing in their body. If they were to simply engage the muscles in their belly, they would bend forward, but that is not their intention when they walk into my office and sit on my table. So they engage the muscles of their back as well to balance the front, thinking that this is giving them strong stabilization of their core. In other words, their back is hurting not because their abdominal muscles aren’t strong enough but, on the contrary, because they are tightening their abdominals too much, and tightening that painful lower back at the same time. The result is a sort of arms race between the front and the back. Or, as my teacher Larry Goldfarb puts it, they are having an argument with themselves -- and argument which by definition they can’t win!

When a student who is dedicated to strengthening exercises comes to me, I never tell them to stop. Instead, I invite them to pay close attention to what they are doing. I help them find easier, more satisfying ways of moving and being. I try to lead them to discover for themselves that strength and power are not the same as effort.

I want to make this very clear: I’m not saying there is anything wrong with strength exercises. Being strong is a wonderful thing, and strength training has many demonstrated benefits. But I find that people often exercise because they think they ought to do it, not because they actually get anything out of it. I teach awareness so that people can decide for themselves what contributes to the quality of their life, because they can feel it in a tangible way. This includes both whether and, more importantly, how to exercise.

Stay tuned! Over the next few months I’ll be posting a series of articles about my understanding of core strength and awareness, addressing issues like:

  • What is the core? anatomy and competing paradigms.
  • Do you need core strength?
  • Power from the Floor: Spirals and the Martial Arts

So if you found this article interesting, be sure to check back or subscribe to the RSS!

Meanwhile, what do you think? Leave a comment and let us know. Has core strengthening been useful to you? Or have you struggled with it, like the students I described? What about your exercises do you think worked or didn’t work for you?