The idea that ‘core stability’ and ‘core strength’ are an important part of physical development is pretty well-knitted into current thinking. It seems an obvious part of building a skilled body, doesn’t it. But we like to look beneath the surface - so let’s apply some scrutiny.
The term ‘core stability’ - and associated beliefs about what our bodies need - arrived in the 1990’s, growing first out of research work into lower back pain and then from the influence of some adult body conditioning techniques exploring fitness and comfort. It created the idea that certain muscles are more important than others for spine stabilisation, that a strong core is necessary for upright movement, and also that a strong core will prevent injury and reduce back pain in adults.
A whole exercise and fitness industry grew, with the focus planted firmly on the abs - those muscles at the front around our tummy. ’Planking’ and ‘abs workouts’ became popular.
And this drip feeds down into the ideas about early childhood development of course, with a focus on ‘core strength’, ’core stability’ and building particular muscles becoming more of a focus.
But recent research gives us reasons to think more widely.
The human spine is a passive and unstable structure at the centre of our body. It can only do its job - providing control and stability in motion or stillness - in participation with the muscles and bones around it.
So we need sufficient strength and involvement in the muscles around the whole spine - from head to tail, neck to pelvic floor, throughout the trunk - to create well supported, fluid movement. That’s a lot of muscles - all down the back, all down the front, plus hips and pelvic floor. Depending on the task and the circumstances, different combinations of these muscles work together to support movement and posture.
So first re-think - the core isn’t just the tummy muscles, it’s all the muscles around the length and breadth of the trunk.
How much core strength do we need?
This is where it gets interesting.
For standing, walking and running, recent research shows that we don’t actually need high levels of ‘core strength’ - in fact the trunk muscles are minimally activated and the deep muscles are virtually silent.
In standing, active stabilisation is achieved with less than 1% of capacity, rising to 3% when carrying a weight. Even in bending and lifting a weight of about 15 kg, muscle activity increases to only about 1.5% of potential. The abs are actually more engaged in sitting than in standing.
So second re-think - for much upright movement, strength is not the key issue. (And the research shows that developing strong abs didn’t have a key role in reducing lower back pain either - no more than general exercise.)
So do we need to think about ‘the core’ at all?
Absolutely - but from a different point of view.
For comfortable, fluid, upright movement the spine and the centre of the body need to be super responsive. This is less about strength and more about well-balanced muscle tone throughout the whole body, and the ability of all the muscles to work in dynamic, connected interplay with one another.
These things develop first in Floor Play - as babies and children play on their backs, sides and tummies - and then in Halfway Play as they move on all fours in ways that require (and create) strong connections from the trunk through to the limbs.
Third re-think: we need to think more about about muscle tone and connectivity and rather than strength.
How do babies and children build a super responsive body?
Developing this lively and dynamic relationship between all the muscles in the trunk is a big part of early physical development. And babies and children are on it from the start.
We adults are used to looking out for ‘milestone’ movements. Unfortunately, developing a lively responsive trunk is not one of the milestones we are watching out for.
It needs to be.
So as a starting point - look again at movement of the whole trunk. Notice babies and children creating movement play opportunities to move or engage their whole trunk; moving from the middle rather than their limbs. Notice how much ‘core work’ they do as part of their everyday movement repertoire.
We challenged ourselves to do this recently and in the next email we’ll share what we saw.
Hot Tip: It doesn’t always look like the kind of exercise we are used to associating with core work.