One of the most comment questions I get asked is “should I strengthen my core”? I always answer: “Most likely BUT the core is not your abdominals, otherwise apples would have 6 packs!”
There’s a lot of stunned faces looking back at me when I answer that way – and not just because it’s a terrible joke. Those looks of confusion really point to something that isn’t understood fully.
The core is the inner most aspect of the body.
If we stop and think about that for a moment, it makes perfect sense. The core of something is always the closest to the centre. The core of the body doesn’t just run horizontally (abdominals), it runs vertically (all the way from the head to the toes). Strengthening your core is so much more than getting ripped abdominals. Working only your abs may even be the reason for tension, pain, small range of movement, lack of strength of the back.
Here’s a simplified definition (in reference to your body and movement); the core is the primary mover muscle that ‘should’ be initiating the movement, usually closest to the skeletal system.
But sometimes, other muscles do the movement that should be done by the core. This is considered a compensation. Not all compensations are painful, create tension, or stop you from living the life you want – but when they do, they are a problem.
Compensations are a natural wisdom of the body.
We all compensate, in their supportive form they assist us when we are injured are unable to do something. But when they aren’t supportive anymore, it’s time to take a deeper look. Compensations can be felt as pain, tension, anxiety, achy SI Joints, a small range of motion – to name a few signs. They arise for many reasons: stress, force, habitual ways of doing things, injury, advice from your mother that’s been taken too far.
Stress compensations can be range from impact (i.e.; almost falling down the stairs and bracing with your muscles) or the way you hold tension in your body and nervous system.
It may be holding your breath when deadlines are looming that causes tension that results in the body tightening up. Not matter what the reason, you are training your nervous system to hold you in a specific way when stress occurs.
Force can take many forms.
It can be something as overt as an impact from falling , or it can be in disguise of ‘challenging’ your body before it is ease fully is ready to go into a yoga posture (perhaps you followed the advice to challenge yourself and bring that toe over your head, or go deeper into Pigeon pose). One time of mental force may not do much, but this choice will eventually create compensation. This kind of force is often felt after the fact…and can be as insidious as sore SI joints or knees the day after.
Habit may the way you sit at your desk, drive a car, sit in a chair, breathe.
It can come in the form of advice that isn’t fully understood; such as rolling the shoulders back because that’s what Mother told you to do (and now it’s been over done into compensation). And it’s not that she was wrong, but that advice was most likely from when you were a teenager.
Or perhaps you’ve been told you need to ‘Strengthen your core’ because of a problem – maybe it’s back pain.
Unless you address the reason why the back is compensating for the core, it’s just another layer of compensation. Strong inner core comes from balance and that happens as a result of reducing your compensations, releasing tension, creating ease, and dissolving pain. Not the other way around! If you actively strengthen your abdominals on top of a compensation, then you are most likely adding another layer of compensation.
We are dynamic beings…
So, it’s likely a combination of those compensations, layered on top of each other. Throw in some emotional and mental layers, some holding of breathe and voila – a recipe for tension, tightness and pain.
It could look something like this:
There’s an habitual way of doing something (like rolling the shoulders back), that gets exacerbated because of the stress of something (a deadline, long hours in front of computer or driving a truck, or shovelling) so that when there’s a force or impact from an accident (falling down the stairs, ski accident) the body doesn’t have the resiliency to bounce back.
Enter stress, tension, pain, small range of movement, achy back or SI joints, lack of strength…all the signals that get me thinking that compensation may be at the core of the problem.
Unraveling is a bit like untangling a bunch of christmas lights that have been thrown in the box.
Each person is unique in how they unravel and in the rebuilding of the inner core function. The keys to unravelling the compensations that bring less pain and more movement lie in choosing more breath, ease, and intentional movements. Sometimes it’s slowing down and noticing the yellow lights or whispers, other times it’s about learning to breathe no matter what else is going on.