'ENGAGE YOUR CORE!!!!!'
.......your fitness instructor, yoga teacher, or coach yells at you, half frowning, half grimacing with delight. *
What do you do?
If you are like 90% of the people I have worked with, you will immediately tighten your outer abdominal muscles. What happens as you do this? You might notice that immediately you stop breathing, your neck tightens, and your shoulders fly up. Surely, this can't be what your friendly instructor wants. Why then would they ask you to do this?
The reason is that the word 'core' has been like a magical fitness button that has been pressed endlessly over the past three decades in fitness culture. The source of this button is research indicating that building 'core strength' can prevent injury and increase functional movement(Google it--there is a wealth of positive literature). But there is a problem here: the 'core' your fitness instructor tells you to engage is different from the core that the science is about. The scientific core has very little to do with your outer abdominals--it is simply a word for the complex muscles of your whole torso, including not just the outer muscles of your stomach but those of your back and basically anything that isn't the sole property of arms or legs. Moreover, it is about strengthening not only the outer muscles of the torso, but the dazzlingly complex and beautiful inner layers of muscle that make up your deep core, most of which are not consciously engageable the way a bicep or a pectoral are. Often these muscles will not actually be accessed if we over engage the outer muscles of the body--they can only be activated indirectly. But hey, abs look nice, so most of us are willing to settle for that rather than achieving the strength and function we deserve.
So how do we respond when our well meaning instructor tells us to 'engage our core'? The answer is simple:
Any well-coordinated whole body movement will activate your core and thereby strengthen it over time.
The irony is that the more we focus on engaging a given 'part' of the body (such as the abs), the less well we use ourselves well as a whole. Rather than fall into the trap of over-engagement in parts, see if you can coordinate your movement so that your eyes move, then your head, then your whole spine, and then finally your limbs in any given movement. Only contract your muscles to the extent they need to in order to handle the work of the exercise, focusing on specificity and form rather than effort. You might be surprised to find those true deep core muscles nice and sore the next day despite the lack of apparent effort within the individual exercises.
Many of the exercises your awesome instructor/trainer are trying to get you to do are absolutely wonderful and effective (though I don't recommend isolated flexion exercises such as sit ups)--this idea can help them to become awesomer! All they need is a little translation.
*I am fully aware that many excellent fitness instructors, particularly Pilates teachers, already know this and are experts at helping their clients/students to access the true and deep core. However, the vast majority of classes I have taken tell people to engage their core with no explanation and regardless of what the movement in question is and most clients I have seen ascribe to the 'my abs are my core' concept. No offense is intended to anyone.
Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.