Your “Core” Exercises May Not Be Doing Squat
I’m sure that at some point in time throughout your life, someone has told you the importance of core strength. Whether it be to decrease your lower back pain, increase your performance on the tennis court, or to improve your balance to allow you to do everything throughout the day. Regardless of the rationale for the message, there is unanimous agreement that the “core” plays a vital role in optimizing human movement. Think of your core as the chassis of your car and the shoulders/hips are the wheels. The more stable that the chassis is, the better that the wheels are able to move and work. If the chassis continuously bends and bows, the wheels will not have traction and the whole machine will likely wear down and eventually break.
One of the best exercises to introduce this stability for spine and the hips is the plank. The plank is a static movement with the goal of maintaining a neutral spine against the force of gravity. In order to perform it properly, you must engage your abdominals, lats, and glutes to sufficiently stabilize the hips and spine. If you are not able to engage these muscles in a setting where there is no movement, then you will likely not be able to engage them while you are moving. Being able to find this “neutral spine” position is paramount in enhancing performance and decreasing your predisposition for pain.
But, here comes the rub – just because you are able to hold and maintain a proper plank for a prolonged period of time, doesn’t mean that it is doing anything beneficial for your back pain or performance. The same thing that makes the plank such a good exercise to activate and strengthen the musculature responsible for maintaining that neutral spine position is the thing that prevents it from translating over to performance – it is a static exercise. The plank takes away all the other variables so that all you have to think about is keeping yourself in that position. But, what happens when you add movement to the equation?
Simply put, many people are not able to maintain that neutral spine position when movement is added. Your core can be as strong as an ox, but if you can’t use it to control your spine while you move, it doesn’t do you any good. Am I saying that you shouldn’t do direct core exercises like the plank? – Absolutely not. But, if you have been focusing on strengthening your core but your back continues to hurt or you aren’t seeing any improvement throughout your daily or sport activities, it may not be a strength issue. Using the plank as a tool to reinforce what having a neutral spine should feel like without movement will give you the feedback to know what it should feel like when you add movement to it.
So, in conclusion, while planks and direct core exercises are good and beneficial, make sure you use them as a means to move better. The plank should give you a feeling of what having a neutral spine feels like. Then, performing movements such as squatting, hinging at the hips, pushing, and pulling while focusing on reproducing that feeling in the core that you had during the plank will make you move better, perform better, and decrease your predisposition to injury.