The Myth of Core Stability: Part 2

The Myth of Core Stability: Part 2

In part 1, we looked at the origins of core stability, what it is, and why we need to reconsider this reductionist approach and the negative connotations of being ‘stable’ or ‘unstable’.

In this blog, we are going to look at different treatment and exercise approaches as we step away from the core stability model.

So the first thing to consider is why do you want to ‘stabilise’ your core?
Here are the reasons frequently given:

  • To prevent injury (I’ll address this one now; you can never prevent injury, only reduce the risk)
  • To improve posture
  • To reduce back pain
  • To improve performance
  • To get a flat stomach

For the last 20 years, this is what the health and fitness industry would have you believe you are doing. However, in the last 10 years, research, or the lack of it, has begun to show that core stability training is very limited in its functionality. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a place, but that it has been taken out of context and its benefits massively over-emphasised.

Core ‘stability’ exercises can help people in pain, but it has nothing to do with stabilising the spine.

Low back pain is not due to weak abdominals or a weak core or a lack of core stability. Altered motor control and coordination of the contractions of the abdominals contributes to low back pain, as well as a shed load of other factors (look up the biopsychosocial model if you’re interested, or wait for the next blog!).

What about the healthy people in search of a flatter tummy or improved performance?

Here, too, core stability training falls short. Core stability came from studies into low back pain, it was never meant to apply to the general population, and for most people, there are better ways of working these muscles.

Focusing internally on contracting individual stomach muscles (eg. ‘draw navel to spine’) is ineffective in improving motor control. However, focusing on movements external to the body (eg. kick the ball) is more conducive to performance improvement.

Most core stability training is not tailored to specific sports or indeed, even our day-to-day needs, ie. it doesn’t replicate the activities needed for these purposes.

Sucking in the tummy, bracing type exercises, static planks and sit-ups are not a dynamic or relevant way to strengthen the abdominals. When in ‘real life’ do we need to function like this? These types of exercises have even been shown to be detrimental. They increase shearing forces on the spine, increase intra-abdominal pressure complicating issues such as pelvic floor dysfunction and diastasis recti, and actually reduces the load the spine can bear.

To feel stronger, healthier and have less or no pain, we just need to move more. It’s a simple as that.

I’m not saying abandon all traditional ‘core stability’ training, there is still value in these exercises, but to consider what your purpose is? Is it suitable for you? Always exercise with a clear rationale. The needs of a grandparent wishing to comfortably pick up a grandchild will be different to a postnatal woman picking up her baby, to a body-builder wishing for certain asthetics, and to an athlete training for an event.

So what are functional, relevant and dynamic ways to strengthen our core?

Strength training is core training. You can train the core without actually targeting the core.

We just need to take our cues from how a child moves to see what I mean. Move as you are designed to move: squatting, lifting, pressing, pulling, hanging, climbing, smashing, grabbing, carrying, walking, running, all on and in a variety of gradients, terrains and environments.

The body loves variety, challenges and stimulation. Some of these movements won’t come naturally at first as we've become soggy amoeba in our chairs, but it can and will come back, and with it, more than just a 6 pack!


Emma Wightman

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