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The background on core stability exercises

Recent research from around the globe has identified that there is a strong connection between back pain and weak core muscles. Learning from this research, we now know that a strong abdominal core protects the spine.

Pilates ball exerciseWorking from the inside out, core stability exercises and training develops fitness from within.

This is also the foundation upon Joseph Pilates built his highly acclaimed method which has taken the fitness industry by storm and which is now the leading method of training used to develop core strength.

More popular than Yoga it is an integral part of training programmes worldwide and is the world's fastest growing fitness regime.

Core Stability Explained

Imagine your body as a tree trunk. The deeper you go into the centre or core of the tree, the stronger that tree becomes. Likewise with the human body, the deeper we go into the centre the stronger our bodies should be.

We have deep core muscles whose function it is to stabilise and support the body. We also have superficial outer layers of muscles whose function it is to move the body. The deep core muscles of the abdomen (the transversus abdominis and internal oblique) and those of the back (multifidus and quadratus lumborum) stabilise the lower back and spine keeping them free from pain. The outer layer of muscles (rectus abdominis, erector spinae and external oblique), often referred to as superficial muscles or prime movers, are responsible for flexing and extending the spine.

Once our deep stabilising muscles are strong enough to provide a secure base of support, we will be able to perform movements safely using the outer layer of muscles.

To illustrate this further, Lynne Robinson, an international Pilates author, makes an analogy between the body and that of a construction crane. Imagine that the base of the crane makes up the stabilising muscles of the body supporting and keeping the base solid, and that the muscles which mobilise or move the body make up the large sweeping arm of the crane. Logically if the base is not strong enough to support the arm, it will simply topple over. Likewise if the core muscles of the body are not strong enough to support and allow freedom of movement for the rest of the body problems will develop.

The Old vs The New

Many in the fitness and rehabilitation worlds now believe that working from the centre, or the deep core, is the most effective and safest way to exercise the body. This method of core conditioning is supported by recent research in rehabilitation and body conditioning and comes highly recommended by doctors, physical therapists and other professionals in the heath and fitness industries around the globe.

Over the years injured hurlers, golfers, tennis and rugby players have sought my help to strengthen their core and improve their flexibility. This is largely because traditional training methods strengthened the outer layers of the body, like the rectus abdominis for example which is a superficial muscle that runs vertically down the abdomen. The role of this muscle is to flex the trunk, but this muscle does not support the spine in sitting or in standing, nor does it assist in healing or preventing low back pain. We now know that the traditional method of training like performing endless press-ups, sit-ups and twists to create that perfect "six pack" does little to protect the body against injury.

It is the deep core stabilising muscles of the abdomen and low back that provide stability for the spine and if these deep muscles do not perform effectively they will not have the endurance capacity to do their job of supporting the spine and other muscles. Often when an injury occurs muscles can overcompensate and create a muscle imbalance. For example, we have muscles which move the body and which lie close to the surface. This outer layer of muscles produces power but they lack endurance – we will call them mobilisers. The stabilisers that lie deeper within the body help with endurance.

Sometimes if a stabilising muscle is not functioning properly a mobiliser may take on a stabilising role. For example, the buttock muscles (gluteals) play a role in stabilising the pelvis. If these muscles are weak the muscles at the back of the thighs (hamstrings) which are mobilisers may take on a stabilising role. Consequently the hamstrings will tighten and shorten while they have to play the stabilising role for weak gluteals. To resolve this, the deep gluteal muscles would need to be strengthened so that the hamstrings can be relieved of their additional duty.

This reversal of muscle functioning due to weakness, injury, poor technique, poor posture during training etc all leads to unhealthy movement patterns. That is why it is so important that training be performed with precision, with the mind actively engaged and focussed on the body. If not, stronger more dominant and potentially incorrect muscle groups will inhibit the development of the weaker muscles.

Speed and hundreds of repetitions lead to error and in the incorrect recruitment of muscles which leads to unhealthy movement patterns, poor technique and injury. Conventional abdominal and back strengthening training leaves people unprepared to meet the demands of their sporting activity or daily work. Exercises to train and strengthen the outer layer of muscle should only therefore commence once the stabilisers, the core, have been developed sufficiently so as to provide a strong foundation; a base of support for the body.

The Solution

Building muscular endurance is considered one of the most effective ways of stabilising the low back. Whether you are looking for rehabilitation of the spine or an athlete looking to improve performance, core strength, endurance and flexibility training is the most effective way forward.

The Swiss Ball, as a piece of equipment for core stability training is unique in that it develops both deep as well as superficial muscles. The instability of the ball challenges balance and reactions of the body thereby ensuring that the stabilising muscles fire up out of necessity.

The abdominal exercises on the ball almost double the effectiveness of muscle training compared with those performed on the mat. The ball requires complete mental focus, as it builds up the abdominal core it also trains deep muscles in the back, hips, arms and legs. If you want a strong healthy back, a set of deep core abdominals and pain free posture then you need to embark on a training programme involving core strength, flexibility and mobility.

Core stability exercises; The Way Forward

To maximise results, you would need to take a renewed approach to exercise and training. The slogan of "no pain no gain" simply does not apply. If a movement causes you pain, stop performing the movement. Reconsider your technique, which muscle groups the body is recruiting, why you are performing the exercise and what exactly you are trying to achieve. These are all questions we should be asking ourselves.

Core strength and flexibility classes are aimed at strengthening the core, correcting muscular imbalances and realigning the body. They are aimed at teaching the body healthy movement patterns and will address a wide range of sports related injuries through corrective exercises and stretching. Together with the common cold, backache is probably one of the most common complaints at the doctors surgery.

If your body hurts after playing sport, a day of gardening, a game of golf, a cycle, a run, driving your car, a day at work, if you are prone to muscular or joint injury due to lack of flexibility or mobility, if you are trying to avoid or have already had back surgery, if you suffer from sciatica, then core stability is for you. Core strength and flexibility classes are quite simply the only prescription for injury prevention.