Does having a strong core relieve low back pain?

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Screen Shot 2014-01-05 at 21.32.20

Well the obvious answer is yes having a strong core contributes to the relief of low back pain.  The bigger questions here are what is the definition of 'the core'?  What muscles is the core made up of?  Is it only abdominal work I need to do?  The answer to this question is a resounding NO!  How do I activate 'the core'?  How do I move successfully whilst keeping my core activated?  If you would like to know the answers to these questions then read on.....

What is the core?

Unfortunately it is mostly referred to as the abdominal region and this is a classic example of how a little information can cause more harm.  Think of the anatomy of the core - the centre of your body -  it is a cylinder.  It has an anterior wall, the abdominals, but it also has sides, a back, a base and a lid.

Just like a house if you only re-inforce the front wall you will create imbalance in the house and the un-inforced parts will weaken and crumble.  If you only train the abdominals you will create an imbalance between the front and back of the body.  The abdominals will get stronger and the back muscles will get weaker.  the pull on the bones from the abdominals and the lack of counteraction from the back muscles will cause a more flat back and a posterior rotated pelvis.  For those with disc injuries this is just about the worst thing you can do because the discs are at even greater risk of coming out, irritating the nerve and causing you great discomfort.

The mechanics 

Activating your core is not as simple as contracting a few muscles.  The diaphragm acts as the lid of your core cylinder as well as playing a major role in respiration.  Your breathing is very much involved in optimal core activation.  If you have faulty breathing mechanics and/or the alignment of your ribcage and pelvis is out this affects the role of the diaphragm in core activation.  Ultimately successful and useful core activation is a blend of alignment, good breathing mechanics and the understanding of how to activate ALL the muscles that make up the core.

Gently does it

Activating your core for support is actually very gentle - about 10-15% of a maximal contraction.  If you contract to hard you'll do what is called a brace.  This is not bad and in some cases is necessary such as in ultra heavy lifting but what happens to the cylinder is it becomes rigid and immovable.  The point of activating the core for support is so you can move freely without restriction.  If you are going red or cannot breathe when activating your core you are contracting too hard.

Intra-related - it's complicated

There is no use thinking I'll train all those component parts separately.  In order to provide optimal support for your spine all these muscles need to work together.  You have to train the brain to switch on these muscles like a conductor begins an orchestra together.  If the firing order is out it will sound like a badly rehearsed concerto.

All together now

Once you have the component parts working in harmony then you must teach your body to move with this new core support system working.  At first it will be a conscious effort but over time it will become automatic.  This enables you to move effectively for life, for fitness, for your sport and with the correct support so you can move without pain and minimise the risk of injuring yourself further.  

So now you know that your core is more than just the abdominals I would recommend seeking out a specialist who can teach you correct alignment of the ribcage and pelvis, correct breathing technique and correct core activation to support your spine.  A good indication of a specialist in this field is one that can explain the mechanics and teach you the application simply and effectively.  

If you would like to know more about core activation and how it can help support your back and other joints effectively for movement contact me at