The terms "core training" and "core strengthening" have been used synonymously in the health and fitness industry. Is there a difference? Does it matter? I'm here to argue that yes, there is a difference, and yes, it does matter.
If you google "core exercises," you get 176,000,000 hits. (trust me, I did it just before typing this). You can get very creative with core strengthening and there are lots of people showing you their ideas out there. The proof is in the numbers. In truth, just about anything that challenges your abdominal muscles or ability to control your center goes into the category of core strengthening. The stronger you get, the more difficult exercise you can do. Hold a plank for 10 min? Sure! Side plank holding a 15 lb kettlebell? Sure! Double leg kick up to a hand stand? Sure! Koala Bear around your spouse for Instagram? Sure!
But what happens if your core isn't working optimally due to pain, injury, surgery, childbirth, postural habits or even IBS? You can pick one or more of the millions of core strengthening exercises but you will not necessarily get any stronger or feel better in your back (you may even feel worse). That's because you can't strengthen a muscle you don't know you own!
That's where "core training" comes in. Core training is the phase of rehab during which you find and address the dysfunction in your base core. In other words, find those muscles you forgot about and figure out why they're not working properly. To do that we have to assess your function in a low load environment with lots of feedback and visualization. If you start too big, all you do is compensate and you won't know why. Common compensations for base core weakness are overuse of back muscles, quadriceps, hip flexors and obliques. A core strength exercise is too hard if you hold your breath, have pressure in your head or see you abdomen bulge out. Core training is more subtle and focused on quality of movement.
So, what's this base core you're talking about? It is a coordinated set of muscles that are designed to be the first on in a movement task. It is comprised of muscles that form a canister between the ribcage and the pelvis. The muscles of the base core are the following: The Transverse Abdominis, The Respiratory Diaphragm, The Pelvic Floor and the Multifidi. The job of these muscles is to ready the system for movement. They work at the subconscious level
and turn on about a milli second before movement occurs. They don't care which direction or what part of your body is moving. The base core muscles need a lot of endurance because they work at a low level all the time (unless your are lying still). If you're lacking endurance in your base core you may find that your pain tends to get worse mid day and gets progressively worse as the day goes on. This is because with lack of base core endurance you compensate in your global muscles. These are the big prime movers. These muscles are the ones that tend to spasm and cramp when they are over worked because they aren't designed to work without underlying support. They are the ones you want to stretch and massage. They are usually not the problem.
We know that the base core is important for lumbo-pelvic health and function and we know that it becomes dysfunctional after episodes of acute pain or trauma. However, the dysfunctional motor pattern isn't altered in a uniform way. That means we can't prescribe a uniform set of exercises to anyone with a core strength problem. You need to identify your unique dysfunction and help address it through a personalized approach. If you perform core strengthening exercises before you're ready, it's like trying to put granite counter tops in a house with a crumbling foundation. Once you have restored coordination and timing of your deep core and you can feel when it is working well, you can progress to core strengthening and get creative.
Long story short, sometimes you have regress to progress....
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