Strength or Stability?

I was listening to an excellent physio and educator talking about ‘core strength vs. core stability’ recently, and he mentioned that the deep spinal stabiliser muscles are fundamentally important, but also ‘below’ or ‘beyond’ direct conscious control.

Well, amen and thank goodness. I don’t fancy a world where everyone had to not just know every muscle in the body, but consciously instruct their Multifidis or Rotatores or anterior Intertransversarii (cervical region) to contract/relax, or try and isolate (good luck) their Transverse Abdominis – the hot favourite core-strengthening muscle de nos jours and only one of numerous, ever-changing favourites.

Muscles are designed to act in concert with each other in wonderful, infinitely varied and complex ways without our necessarily having to know every detail about them and get all involved. Plenty of super fit, healthy folks couldn’t name more than a couple of muscles and don’t specifically exercise any of them.

Of course, for sports and athletics, specific training for specific muscular strength and stamina is needed, and sports are wonderful for health; but many are fraught with injury, and there's never any shortage of debate and disagreement about what people should and shouldn't be doing.

The 'core strength/core stability' debate in particular is fascinating. It seemed to get going with focusing on ‘abs’ (‘abdominals’, usually just Rectus abdominis, the ‘six-pack’ muscle) and then added the pelvic floor.

Consensus has broadened to include more muscles groups, over time, but there are still wildly differing points of view and beliefs about what is meant by 'the core', and whether it needs to be made steely strong or just stable. I guess it all depends on who you ask and what you want to do. Many folks swear by their crunches and pelvic squeezes, many of whom won't have heard of the importance of the deep spinal muscles.

But if spinal stabilisers are of fundamental importance to moving well, but under-active - and also out of reach of conscious activation - how can you reactivate them? What if squeezing the old belly to 'strengthen your core' just further discourages those intervertebral muscles from doing their jobs? Yikes.

Many years ago, a very famous Alexander Technique teacher called Patrick MacDonald wrote, “The trouble is… there is not enough tension in the spinal column, and too much tension around the outside of the back, and on the limbs and ribs.” I have always remembered that sentence and am reminded of it in this context.

MacDonald is describing what happens when people interfere with natural, light and easy body movement by targeting and building up specific muscles or muscle groups, they can sometimes get in a pickle. Many of my students have told me they struggle to ‘hold themselves up’ while sitting. They work hard to hold themselves up by arching backs, squeezing stomachs, clenching bottoms, tensing all leg muscles, all manner of unhelpful things. Unsurprisingly, they get sore, tired backs, necks, shoulders, stomachs, bums and legs.

There’s a wonderful system that can ‘hold you up’ without all this effort. It involves open, well-balanced joints, including all the vertebral joints, and those aforementioned deep intervertebral muscles so perfectly designed to keep the torso and head balanced quite easily and delicately – so easily, in fact, that it can seem almost effortless.

The big ‘prime surface mover’ muscles are fabulous for Doing Things. But if you want to just sit there, activating big mover muscles can pull the delicate balancing out of whack and set up a tiring chain of push-me-pull-you.

Under-use muscles best fit for purpose, and other muscles will try to accommodate the deficit - bless them. Or, you could say, over-use certain muscles not best suited to the job, and the more appropriate ones will fall back and weaken over time. The neuromuscular system is wondrously fine-tuned and balanced – until it’s not.

If you’d like a fun thing to try to see how your deep spinal stabilisers are doing and you have a gym ball and a mirror, my physio friend demonstrated with this test: wearing a tight top so you can see your torso movement, sit on the ball in front of the mirror, feet planted evenly. Cross your arms across your chest so you can’t use them to help you balance. Now, slowly straighten one leg out in front of you, extending at the knee, and then slowly put it down again. Watch carefully what happens in your trunk. How wobbly is your middle? The wobblier it is, the less well the deep spinal stabilisers are working.

The physio’s solution, neatly, is the same as the test. The more you do this exercise while watching your torso in the mirror, he says, the more your brain cottons on and re-activates those deep spinal stabilisers.

This physio exercise is great for rehabilitation programmes; but it’s quite different to Alexander lessons. For people battling the discomfort and fatigue of too much tension, Mr. Alexander introduced quite something revolutionary, with long-lasting effects. It involves re-educative experiences revealing the body's clever inertial system that works so beautifully when not interfered with.

When I was training to teach, a fellow trainee came up with the lovely analogy or metaphor of an orchestra to describe the human movement. Every instrument is just right for its purpose and ready for when to play its part, and the whole ensemble co-ordinates to create wonderful ‘symphonies’ of movement. You don’t need to know the technical specifications of each instrument to enjoy the music; neither would you want too much from the French horns at the expense of the cellos, or vice versa.

All chiropractors, osteopaths, physios, cranio-sacral therapists, masseurs and so on work in their different ways to restore the integrated, co-ordinated movement it sadly seems all too easy to lose.

Alexander Technique works somewhat differently towards restoring general good co-ordination, more by way of re-education. Though there is a little gentle manipulation too, it's super-subtle and gentle, no crunching, cracking or pummelling.

‘Getting out of your own way’ is a phrase often heard used by teachers and students to describe the delightful experience of moving the most efficient muscle use, when everything seems to just fall into place, and the muscles that ‘want’ to do their job properly are free do so – including the deep spinal stabilisers.

Core strength, or core stability? The question isn’t necessarily a binary one, but I’ll leave it to you to ponder on it.