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New Years Resolution - Core Strength - Fact, Fiction or Red Herring?

New Years resolution – core strength – fact, fiction or red herring?

It’s the start of the year, Christmas indulgence has been and gone and the annual New Year resolution has been made. This year, probably like many before, our resolution is to get in shape, get our health in order and to live the “ideal lifestyle”. So the next logical step is to head over to the gym, meet a personal trainer and start 2-3 sweat and pain sessions each week. The first thing our new “best friend” has us doing is some light running on the treadmill, lifting a few embarrassingly small weights and then they start talking about improving our “core” and having us lay in a plank position which is supposed to be the key to reducing back pain and overall fitness. It hurts and we assume that the more it hurts the more it must be good for us. So as the weeks go by, our cardio-vascular fitness is improving, our strength is improving as reflected in that our teeny tiny weights are growing to a more socially acceptable size and our festive season belly is shrinking. And to our PT’s excitement, we can plank for longer, meaning our “core” is getting stronger. But then disaster strikes…..one morning, as we prepare for our session of pain in the “iron palace”, we go to put our shoes on and BANG!!! Excruciating pain in our low back with some bolts of lightning into our bum cheek and thigh!!! WTF??!! We have been doing the good stuff, working and strengthening our core and now low back pain…..isn’t a strong core supposed to prevent this horror?!?!?

So, as any person in pain is inclined to do, we ask questions of the most reliable source we can find, Google. Now, Dr Google is full of much wisdom and sends us off to amazing places like Wikipedia, the NIH in the USA and even our local physiotherapist has a article sprouting the positives about core strength and its influence over lower back pain. But then, to both the horror and surprise of ourselves and our PT, we start finding articles suggesting weaknesses in the core strength theory and suggestions that core strength has been completely blown out of context!! As a result of all of this conflicting information, we decide to make a list of “facts about the core strength concept” (and check it twice….hasn’t someone else has done that recently?!?!?)

Fact #1

The human spine is inherently unstable when upright (standing) and requires appropriate trunk muscle contraction to maintain the erect posture.

Fact #2

Transversus abdominus (one of the abdominal muscles) is the mostly widely discussed and researched core stabilising muscle due to its role as a trunk stabiliser and its connection with the low back soft tissues.

Fact #3

Continuous contraction of transversus abdominus (an abnormal & non-functional action) as required in a “plank” is actually shown to create such abnormal forces on the spine, thereby it INCREASES to incidence of lower back injury.

Fact #4

Doubts exist over the effectiveness of most core strength exercises due to the inability to create enough of a voluntary muscle contraction in order to result in muscle hypertrophy or growth.

Fact #5

Core strength exercises have been demonstrated to be no better than general exercise as a “treatment of lower back pain”.

Fact #6

Weak or dysfunctional core/abdominal muscles do not lead to lower back pain.

Fact #7

Tensing the trunk muscles is unlikely to provide protection against injury.

Fact #8

There is potential danger to the spine with continuous tensing of trunk muscles during daily and sporting activities.

Now we did check our list, in fact more than twice!! And as we sat staring at Dr Google’s home page we recalled our super fit, ridiculously health conscious good friend who was hobbling around several months prior with a case of “crappy low back-itis”. A quick text message asking some advice was sent, to which the simplest and briefest reply was received….

So what did we end up doing for our horrible lower back pain?? First, we heard (through our super fit ridiculously health conscious friend) about this awesome Chiropractor in Mt Hawthorn (nudge nudge, wink wink). He checked our spine from top to toe, used some little gadget to help find the problem, took these awesome xrays of our entire spine on one film (it was great to see how our lower back was changing our entire posture all the way up to our neck) and he explained that training, fitness and general movement are awesome for the spine and nerve system, just make sure they are functional movements (not sure how functional a plank is??).
What’s the take home message – move your body in the most functional manner possible, give up doing core strengthening exercises (planks suck anyway), remember muscles can only function in response to messages via the nerve system and finally, make sure you get your spine and nerve system checked!!

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