Core Stability Versus Core Strength: There is a Difference!
If you suffer from any type of back pain, you may have been advised to strengthen your core. However, there is more to rehabilitation than just building pure strength. Developing control and stability of your core, is just as important, or even more so, than developing strength.
The “core” refers to the area of the torso between the chest and the pelvis. Imagine it as a cylinder shape, where the diaphragm (the breathing muscle that separates the ribs from the abdominal cavity) acts as the lid, and the pelvic floor (a sling of muscle running from pubic bone to tail bone, that supports the weight of the internal organs) is the base. The Transversus Abdominis (the deepest abdominals) and the Multifidus (the deepest back muscles) form the walls of the cylinder. Many joints are within the core area, including the lumbar vertebrae and those of the pelvis.
Your core most often acts as a stabiliser, rather than a prime mover, and it is important to first achieve core stability to protect the spine and the associated muscles from injury in stationary movements before progressing on to dynamic movements.
Recent research has revealed that these deeper core muscles function slightly differently to those more superficial muscles, such as the Rectus Abdominis (the six pack) and the obliques. The deep muscles not only prepare us for movement but also work in all that we do, meaning that they are not movement or direction dependent. They work in synergy with one another, varying their level of involvement as they anticipate the impending load on the body. The timing and amplitude of their contractions are crucial if they are to provide control to the joints of the spine and pelvis. Core control exercises focus on timing and co-activation with other muscles, while core strength training takes this well timed and coordinated contraction and pairs it with increased load. You may have well developed core strength, and be a champion at holding a plank for several minutes, which is very helpful if you need to stand at rigid attention all day, but that is not what everyday living requires. Our bodies need to move, bend and extend, rotate and twist, and we need to be able to control from our core while performing these movements if we are to avoid injury.
The most common reason for injury and back pain is the incorrect timing and recruitment of the core muscles. If you build a tower on a poor foundation it will eventually topple. The same can be said for your core stability, however, recruit the deeper core muscles prior to your superficial layers, just like adding floors to a tower, and your back will be strong and pain free.
Research has shown that pain and injury inhibits the synergy of the co-contraction of the core muscles, resulting in a disruption in communication from your brain to the core muscles, and since you cannot strengthen a muscle that your brain is not using, your current core strengthening exercises may simply be reinforcing a non-optimal pattern of existing muscle activation.
The aim of core control exercises is to restore the timing and sequence of those deep muscles, and as they work on an anticipatory basis to prepare you for movement, it is counter-productive to perform “doing” exercises, as the brain will fire to the larger, superficial muscles instead. Pilates uses preparatory cues and imagery to increase the connection to the pelvic floor muscles and transversus abdominis, in co-ordination with your breath, before progressing onto greater movements. The aim is to teach you how to bring awareness to the right muscle contractions.
Once you can harmoniously activate the core muscles, then comes the time for core strengthening, by adding loads through the trunk, legs or arms. This type of functional strengthening develops an optimal pattern of stabilisation and mobility, and can then be implemented into any other exercises or movements, such as squats, lunges, or simply reaching up into a high cupboard.
The most important aspect of core performance is obtaining the control that is necessary to:
- Stabilise the spine
- Maintain optimal alignment and movement synergy between the spine and the pelvis
- Prevent excessive stress and compensatory movements of the pelvis when moving the arms and legs.
All three have to do with stability versus strengthening.
There is importance in differentiating between core strength and core stability, and in the continuum of performance, stability must be trained before strength.