Friday, June 26, 2009

core v. abs

i'm sure a lot of you have been doing a lot of core work. it seems to be a pretty big trend, with just about every workout and training regime that i see devoting at least some part of the schedule to it. it's at the point that if you're not doing core work, you probably feel like you're missing out.

i've fallen prey to this wave myself, catching it courtesy of the advice of some physical therapists, various coaches, and a few of my friends who've all sworn by it, and asserted that it would help address some major issues of mine (chronically bad lower back, chronically sore connective tissues from the erector spinae to the gluteus to the hamstrings and upper calves, and overall poor posture). i've managed to get results, so i'm pretty much signed on to the movement.

problem is, one of the things i've learned is that 1) not many people seem to agree on what the "core" is, and 2) not many people seem to know what are truly good core exercises. as a result, i suspect a lot of them are doing random exercises they've seen without any understanding as to what they're doing--or if they should be done at all.

there was an article in the New York Times recently that gets to this:

i put the full text of the article at the bottom of this post.

the article pretty much asserts what i'm saying: a lot of people talking about the core, but then doing exercises that don't really reflect this. if anything, people are doing exercises that just focus on the abs, with a fixation on the visible front portion of their midsections (i.e., the 6-pack/8-pack territory...the kind you use to show off your fitness and general sexiness). thing is, this is only 1 part of the core, and ignores your obliques, your sides, the back portion of the core, and (as emphasized in this article) all the underlying deep muscles.

based on what my physical therapists, coaches, and friends have told me, the reason all this is important from a sports perspective is that your body requires some measure of stability, and that hence this stability must come from somewhere. ideally, your supporting muscle groups serve to provide the stability and your major muscle groups are free to concentrate on providing the propulsion for larger movements (e.g., swimming, biking, running, etc.). for a lot of athletes, however, the supporting muscle groups are underdeveloped, forcing the major muscle groups to devote a portion of their effort to providing stability, resulting in less output to driving larger movements.

in essence, it's comparable to the inefficiencies of an engine. the lack of stability has a similar effect to the presence of internal friction in an engine: it robs you of power.

which makes it worthwhile to take some time work on the internal portion of your body and improve stability, so that you can maximize efficiency and improve power output.

this means that you have work on the core...and not just the abs, but the entire core. the real one.

Core Myths
New York Times
June 21, 2009
Phys Ed

The genesis of much of the ab work we do these days probably lies in the work done in an Australian physiotherapy lab during the mid-1990s. Researchers there, hoping to elucidate the underlying cause of back pain, attached electrodes to people’s midsections and directed them to rapidly raise and lower their arms, like the alarmist robot in “Lost in Space.” In those with healthy backs, the scientists found, a deep abdominal muscle tensed several milliseconds before the arms rose. The brain apparently alerted the muscle, the transversus abdominis, to brace the spine in advance of movement. In those with back pain, however, the transversus abdominis didn’t fire early. The spine wasn’t ready for the flailing. It wobbled and ached. Perhaps, the researchers theorized, increasing abdominal strength could ease back pain. The lab worked with patients in pain to isolate and strengthen that particular deep muscle, in part by sucking in their guts during exercises. The results, though mixed, showed some promise against sore backs.

From that highly technical foray into rehabilitative medicine, a booming industry of fitness classes was born. “The idea leaked” into gyms and Pilates classes that core health was “all about the transversus abdominis,” Thomas Nesser, an associate professor of physical education at Indiana State University who has studied core fitness, told me recently. Personal trainers began directing clients to pull in their belly buttons during crunches on Swiss balls or to press their backs against the floor during sit-ups, deeply hollowing their stomachs, then curl up one spinal segment at a time. “People are now spending hours trying to strengthen” their deep ab muscles, Nesser said.

But there’s growing dissent among sports scientists about whether all of this attention to the deep abdominal muscles actually gives you a more powerful core and a stronger back and whether it’s even safe. A provocative article published in the The British Journal of Sports Medicine last year asserted that some of the key findings from the first Australian study of back pain might be wrong. Moreover, even if they were true for some people in pain, the results might not apply to the generally healthy and fit, whose trunk muscles weren’t misfiring in the first place.

“There’s so much mythology out there about the core,” maintains Stuart McGill, a highly regarded professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada and a back-pain clinician who has been crusading against ab exercises that require hollowing your belly. “The idea has reached trainers and through them the public that the core means only the abs. There’s no science behind that idea.”

The “core” remains a somewhat nebulous concept; but most researchers consider it the corset of muscles and connective tissue that encircle and hold the spine in place. If your core is stable, your spine remains upright while your body swivels around it. But, McGill says, the muscles forming the core must be balanced to allow the spine to bear large loads. If you concentrate on strengthening only one set of muscles within the core, you can destabilize your spine by pulling it out of alignment. Think of the spine as a fishing rod supported by muscular guy wires. If all of the wires are tensed equally, the rod stays straight. “If you pull the wires closer to the spine,” McGill says, as you do when you pull in your stomach while trying to isolate the transversus abdominis, “what happens?” The rod buckles. So, too, he said, can your spine if you overly focus on the deep abdominal muscles. “In research at our lab,” he went on to say, “the amount of load that the spine can bear without injury was greatly reduced when subjects pulled in their belly buttons” during crunches and other exercises.

Instead, he suggests, a core exercise program should emphasize all of the major muscles that girdle the spine, including but not concentrating on the abs. Side plank (lie on your side and raise your upper body) and the “bird dog” (in which, from all fours, you raise an alternate arm and leg) exercise the important muscles embedded along the back and sides of the core. As for the abdominals, no sit-ups, McGill said; they place devastating loads on the disks. An approved crunch begins with you lying down, one knee bent, and hands positioned beneath your lower back for support. “Do not hollow your stomach or press your back against the floor,” McGill says. Gently lift your head and shoulders, hold briefly and relax back down. These three exercises, done regularly, McGill said, can provide well-rounded, thorough core stability. And they avoid the pitfalls of the all-abs core routine. “I see too many people,” McGill told me with a sigh, “who have six-pack abs and a ruined back.”

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