The spinal column serves two different functions in the human body. It stabilizes and gives shape to the core, that’s why it needs be strong. Also moves the body towards all planes of motion, so it needs to be flexible. Of course what moves and stabilizes the spine is the muscles attached around it.
Deep abdominals as the transverus abdominal and the obliques, the pelvic floor muscles and the diaphragm, when they contract create an inner corset around the spine stabilize and protect it. These anterior and lateral muscles along with the deep posterior spinal group muscles such as the interspinales, inertransversales, rotatores and multifidus, create the perfect match around the core! All these muscles act together or as opposing forces, and at the same time cooperate with each other in several moves. But most of all, if strengthen, they stabilize the core and help maintain a proper body position along the day.
And then we have the global muscles around the core. Except for the fact that they attach the limbs to the core and are the protagonists in their movements, some of them also help maintain proper body position too. For example, the Latissimus Dorsi anatomically extends the arm, but as a matter of stance it “lifts up” (lengthening) the torso. Also, the psoas is one of the main hip flexors but its attachments onto the spine also allow the iliopsoas to help maintain the desired normal curvature of the lumbar spine.
So, we as fitness professionals where should we focus? Should we focus on stability, or mobility? Should we focus on the “local” stabilizers or the “global” stabilizers and movers? The answer of course is “focus on both”. The human body needs both to be active and strong in order to maintain a proper alignment and position and to move with efficiency towards all planes of motion. Our aim should be a proper muscle balance around the core. “Local” stabilizers attach directly to the spinal column and work to limit excessive and rotational forces, also decompress the spine. “Global” stabilizers attach from the pelvis to the spine, to provide stability between these two parts of the body. They also transfer loads between the upper and the lower limbs (extremities).
So core stabilization training consists of small inner motions through the spine and pelvis, to improve neuromuscular efficiency and intervertebral stability. But how can we activate muscles like the transverus abdominal or the pelvic floor muscle, which the nervous system (brain) isn’t using? These muscles “anticipate” motion and we must use “intension” or “imagery” to retrain their function. That is why we must use small, inner activation with a lot of concentration. And then add on bigger and stronger moves. Core strength consists of more dynamic eccentric and concentric movements of the spine, where we use full range of motion. Finally, comes the core power training which will improve the rate of force production, dynamically stabilize and functionally move the whole body.
Now let’s compare two different exercises and two different techniques. We take for example the abdominal sit ups (crunches) vs the “the roll up” from the Pilates technique. The first exercise has a small range of motion, uses the upper part of the abdominal wall and has very small vertebrae imprintment, or not at all- which depends on the trainer. On the other hand, “the roll up” exercise has a much bigger range of motion (uses more vertebras), activates all anterior spinal muscles and offers a big vertebrae imprintment. So which exercise is better? It depends on the client and the training target. Sit ups are much easier for a new comer but luck of spinal mobility. The roll up offers mobility but it needs more inner and outer strength. We must find ways (modifications) for both exercises in order to include them to our exercise repertoire and give our client a “total” core training.
Simply have in mind that “Brain training comes before strengthening”.
Christina Pantazopoulou is the Director of the Pilates Certification at Studio One (Greek Institute of Fitness). She is a graduate of the Athens Department of Physical Education and Sports Science and an EREPS-certified Personal Trainer and Pilates Teacher. Christina also works as a Personal Trainer in many large gyms in Athens such as Holmes Place club. Studio One is an EuropeActive Accredited Training Provider.