Is it possible that a student can work out, practice yoga, or do Pilates regularly, and still have a poor or weak core? Absolutely! It’s frustrating, I know, but the issue can be a bit complex, and combine any of the following:
Weak deep core muscles, including pelvic floor, might go unnoticed if you are really strong in your larger or more superficial muscles.
Poor breathing habits – breath and core need to work together effectively to ensure healthy movement habits. Often when we work at a high intensity, we ‘brace’ on our breath instead of using our deep core muscles.
Lack of awareness – and this doesn’t mean that you lack awareness, this is often just a result of high intensity exercise, fast-paced practice, or complex movements that make it difficult to feel the subtleties of what is really happening in a movement.
Issues around timing of muscle contraction, particularly if you have a muscle that is ‘gripping’ your timing of activation will be off.
So, as you might have surmised from the above, often the issue can be related to intensity – too much intensity causes us to lose technique, and then our bigger muscles take over, and our deeper core muscles are out of a job. Watch for the following ‘Chronically Contracting Culprits’ in your next practice and see if this is happening to you.
Chronically Contracting Culprits:
Pecs: The large muscles of the chest often help out a bit too much in our core work, trying to put our spine into flexion (rounding forward) rather than letting our abs that flexion work. In crunches and ab curls and similar movements, watch for your shoulder blades moving away from your spine and the front of your shoulders curling inwards – this is usually a sign that your pecs are doing your core work for you.
Gluts: These large muscles of the buttocks are a great muscle group and have lots of jobs, but in your core practice they should not be doing pelvic ‘tucks’ for you. When you want to curl your pelvis under in movements like curls, crunches or (in Pilates) Imprint, watch that your buttocks remain relaxed and the muscles between your front ribs and your front hip bones are doing the work – use your hands to feel the gluts relaxed, and the abdomen working.
Hip Flexors: These big muscles that connect the front of the thigh with the pelvis and abdomen are often short and tight, and will tend to ‘grip’ in many movements. How do you know if they are gripping? Often you can feel the sensation within the movement, but also look for the front of your belly to push out – this is a superficial abdominal muscle called Rectus Abominus, and often when we see this pop out, this is a sign that the hip flexors are gripping. You can also look at your breath, because too often when we are gripping our muscles, we are also gripping our breath.
In a class environment a teacher can’t always see if you are using the right muscles – so you have to learn to feel for those deeper core muscles, and using your hands and watching how your body moves or doesn’t move can help you to feel if your ‘contracting culprits’ are trying to take over the job.
In Core Yoga one of the keys to a highly beneficial practice is to choose good technique over high intensity. So, if your intensity is so difficult that you are gripping, bracing on your breath, or popping out your abdomen, the best practice is to reduce your intensity until you can sustain great technique. This is a challenge because sometimes we can’t get the same ‘instant gratification’ from a class because we are having to do less repetitions or lower intensity, but in the long-run we will benefit far more from a slowly-slowly approach rather than just letting our bigger (and often superficial) muscles do our core work for us.
So, if you are keen to improve your deep core stability and cultivate a strong and active core, here are a few things to consider:
1. First have good technique, then add intensity.
2. Watch for the big muscles like glutes, pecs, and hip flexors doing the work instead of the deeper stabilizers and movers.
3. And, forget about how many repetitions you ‘should’ do, and stop when you feel those big muscles taking over.
4. Go back to beginner moves. No matter how long you have been practicing/exercising, there is always benefit to returning to small, simple techniques that will show you what is really happening in each movement on a deeper level, and then you can progress beautifully and create a stronger, healthier, more active core.