What You Probably Didn't Know About Core Strength

I used to think I had to use my abdominal muscles all the time. I lived in fear that my abdominals were weak.

I had excessive curvature in my lower spine (lordosis ) and was a classical dancer. "Turn on your transversus (belt muscle)," was a common mantra. 

I thought I wasn't supporting my spine if I couldn't see definition of the muscle. So I gripped down and held my belly in, all the time. This was my definition of core strength. I've illustrated it below in Figure A. I call this core organization: The Bracing Method. It is a VERY popular concept when it comes to building core strength:

Figure A:

In bracing, you hug your muscles around your spine to create a static harness while you express through your limbs. The emphasis is on engagement and constriction of the abdominal cavity; thus, motion in the core body itself is restricted and limited. 

Over time, I noticed the bracing method made some things a little awkward, such as sneezing. My sneezes never had anywhere to go. They were big, sharp eruptions with no reverberation; sneezing often hurt my back. Also, my lung capacity was really, really low, and I couldn't understand why since I was dancing in a rigorous conservatory program. Motion around my hips, pelvis, and spine was frustratingly limited. My psoas and hip flexors were always short and tight. Pain would flair up in my upper back and knee. And then there was my disastrous digestion. I had years of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which gave me pain after I ate. Random pangs would make me double over several times a day. 

At the time, none of these issues seemed connected to my core organization. I was doing what my teachers and fitness professionals told me was best. I followed the model of a toned and strong belly, and did the most advanced core exercises I could find. You bet I had the muscular facade to show it. I pulled in and pulled in my abdominal muscles.

Now let me introduce Figure B:

I came to learn another approach to core organization much later on. I call this Core Resilience. Rather than the static harnessing of abdominal muscles around the spine in The Bracing Method, Core Resilience focuses on the core muscles’ and tissues’ responsivity to morphing volume, changes in gravity, pressure, and fluid motion.

The job of the muscles is to transmit forces instead of constantly holding.  Core tissues develop an expansive range. The internal volume of your core both expands and compresses as an expression of core integration. 

In this form of core organization, the core tissues are deeply informed by gravity. The muscles, volume, and abdominal contents follow the path of action and gravity acting on the core body. Through Core Resiliency, body structure integrates and dissolves, integrates and dissolves, creating and surrendering form.

The unencumbered midline radiates into motion, and is supported throughout the entire body structure, sending expansive signals out through the limbs. Since the muscles are in a responsive rather than static state, the core is open to receive and integrate the motion reverberating back in from the periphery. 

The core is in constant communion with the ground, from which it draws support. There is no holding or bracing, only unencumbered space to express life. Internal organs move with the ebb and flow.

I find that the second way of organizing the core, Core Resiliency, elicits natural intelligence in the fabric of the core body. There is more length, range of motion, and transmission across the entire body. The spine is unencumbered. There is less strain on the limbs. Shoulder, neck, hip, and knee pain clear away. The internal organs and digestion thrive. This way of core organization supports the flow of life rather than restraining it.

So the next time you hear, "pull your abdominal muscles in," Check Yourself:

Listen to how your core body wants to express. How can you transmit motion, open to ebb and flow, respond to your changing relationship in gravity, and integrate from core through periphery? And then dissolve in sweet resilience?

What is YOUR relationship to your core? Are you constantly pulling your belly in to gain strength or support?

Leave your questions and experiences in the comments section below. I love reading each and every comment.

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The best is in you,

Emily