You’ve probably heard that a strong core prevents back pain and injury.
This is what I would call an incomplete truth. It has some merit with the right application, but as a generalized sweeping statement is mostly false.
The reality is that core strength doesn’t correlate well with injury prevention or pain management.
However, the ability to manage the forces traveling from your upper body to your lower body and vice versa may decrease the experience of pain for some people and can help you reduce the instances of repetitively loading and irritating the same spot your lower back.
To that point, there are core strength exercises that can teach you how to create enough tension in your torso to manage these forces, which as I mentioned above, may be why some of us do feel like our back pain decreases when we practice certain core exercises.
Let’s talk about what this looks like.
Core strength is less important than core responsiveness.
What I mean by this is that you want to teach you core how to respond to position and load when you perform various activities.
For example, you don’t want your core to be firing at 110% for an activity that requires a gentle engagement like sitting or walking. It’s not efficient and you’re creating unnecessary effort and tension around your back that doesn’t need to be there and in the long term may not feel good.
Conversely, you don’t want your core to fail to engage enough to support your spine when you go to lift a heavy object (think about it like your torso being a pool noodle when you want a solid beam), because then you may load a bunch of forces into your back that it’s not prepared to take, which would also not feel good and *may* result in injury.
How can you train your core to be able to respond appropriately to the physical demands of what you are doing?
Don’t hate me for saying this, but it depends.
If you’re from “fitness” land and you’ve been doing tons and tons of crunches and hardcore squeezing your abs in everything you do, then you may need to train your abs to down regulate or engage less with gentle exercises.
THEN, you will want to play with seeing if you can have them be more responsive in engaging more when you’re practicing challenging exercises without having to hardcore squeeze them all the time.
If you recently had a baby, have a history of back pain and muscle guarding, or have had abdominal surgery, then you may also benefit from some of these tiny gentle exercises to help you reconnect to your core as you progressively increase core strength and challenge!
Sometimes in physical therapy or Pilates, we’ll describe this type of core engagement as the deeper core muscles, which includes the traverse abdominis, pelvic floor, and diaphragm.
This is different than the bigger, more superficial, which includes you rectus abdominis (the 6 pack muscle) and obliques.
Both will help you move and stabilize your spine and you can’t actually isolate either set of muscles, but you can use exercises to train your core to be more responsive to what you are doing, so you get enough core engagement for what you are doing without over efforting or creating excessive tension.
If you are wondering what these more gentle exercises might look like, here’s a video. Note, the exercises in this video have value, but they are also VERY regressed, so depending on your fitness level, you may need greater challenge to feel your deep core.
However, this is just a starting point if you’re having pain or have experienced event that has disrupted you ability to connect to your core. For most of us, these tiny gentle exercises are NOT enough long term.
We want to train our core to engage in more challenging exercises and under load during exercises such as squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and push-ups. We also want our core to be strong enough to handle an unforeseen physical challenge, such as slipping and falling on ice.
This is where there is value in planks, side planks, and virtually any type of core exercise you’ve ever played with. In short, all core exercises can have value in the right context, but it’s helpful to know why you’re practicing them and to understand that they aren’t a panacea for reducing pain or the risk of injury.
Want some specific ideas to start to engage your core more reflexively in various exercises, such as planks, push-ups, squats, and more?
I created an at-home no equipment workout that includes exercises to build full body strength and a strong reflexive core.