Was Core Stability Just a Fad?

You may recall a time when everyone had to have a large exercise ball and the term core stability was used frequently among fitness enthusiasts. Was it a fad?  HealthOut says no.  The key concepts of the core stability movement have always been relevant, and will continue to be relevant for as long as we have bodies that move.


Definition of Core Stability

While there is no universally accepted definition for this term, I think it is safe for us to define core stability as the ability to maintain neutral positions in the hips, pelvis, spine and thorax while performing physical activity. 

Why Core Stability?

If you want to know why core stability is important, watch any high level athlete perform a task masterfully, and notice how they manage their center of mass perfectly.  The effortless look of an athlete is not possible without the coordinated effort of thousands of very small muscle fibers that cannot be seen with the naked eye - tiny muscles in and around the spine, sacrum and pelvis are activating at just the right time in the smallest amounts imaginable like a perfectly orchestrated symphony.  These muscles not only maintain balance, but also place each joint surface in the right position to withstand the most stress and allow the larger muscles of the body to be forcefully activated without looking strained or awkward. 

Now watch an inexperienced athlete try to perform at the same level as an elite athlete, and notice how their outer most muscles look strained and they generally look off balance.  Because they are trying to perform something that is well beyond their ability level, those same small muscles that would organize their center of mass and keep their joints perfectly positioned are not prepared in the same way, and thus you see the larger muscles of the body straining and jerking the body in an awkward fashion.

Poor Stability Happens When

Poor stability happens when the body tries to do too much, too soon.  This is perhaps the most important principle that HealthOut operates around.  If you continue to exercise past a state where your small muscles are able to keep your body controlled and stable, you not only put your joints under more stress, but you also teach the body to move in a way that is not optimal.  You may sweat a bit more, but you are no longer moving toward your health goals.  As with many other things in life, taking shortcuts does not pay off with exercise, and the right amount of challenge is where your success will happen.

Ways to Improve Core Stability

Come to HealthOut at least twice a week...seriously.  The signs that the key stabilizing muscles in the body are not working optimally are subtle, and having a trained eye in the background can go a long ways toward keeping you on track.  However, here are some signs that you are doing too much too soon:

  • Losing position - if your hips, pelvis and spinal positions cannot be maintained in their neutral positions, back it up.

  • Breath holding - bearing down while exercising can be a sign you are compensating.

  • Straining - watch for the large muscles in your body overworking.  If you aren't holding any weight, your lumbar spine should not look tense while you squat for instance. 

  • Pain - if your spine feels strained or compressed while doing something, you should find a lower load alternative to the movement.

Here are some ways you can bias the stabilizers of your body:

  • No Pain - when your body is in pain, your stabilize muscles are not working properly.  Find ways to do movements in a pain free fashion.

  • Balance - having to balance causes muscles on opposite sides of your joints to co-contract, which leads to good kind of stability we were talking about.  

  • Long Sets - stability muscles are endurance muscles - do activities with light resistances for up to 2-3 minutes at a time. 

  • Move precisely - if an activity requires no coordination (you 'could do it in your sleep') it likely doesn't require as much stability as something that requires you move your body precisely.  Agility ladders are a great example of something that most people wouldn't traditionally think of as core stability.

  • Full Body Exercise - moving your arms and legs with light resistance usually usually leads to recruitment of the core muscles a fraction of a second earlier, provided the body is already functioning properly.

Remember the aerobics craze?  The small dumbells in the hands, the full body physical activity, the coordination of having to step up in certain way?  That's right, that was core training!  Laying down on the floor and activating your stabilizers is still a great place to start, but don't be too restricted in what you think a core stability exercise is, you might be surprised.  Leg warmers probably don't add benefits, but you never know :)