Core training vs. Core strengthening

What is the difference and why does it matter?

(by Diane Lee, Physiotherapist)

The terms core training and core strengthening have been used interchangeably in the physical therapy and fitness industries for years.  Oftentimes, the same exercises are given indiscriminately to everyone, regardless of how their core is functioning. But what if your core is not properly trained and you continue doing general core strengthening exercises?  The result may be that you are merely reinforcing a non-optimal pattern of muscle activation that you already have.

What is the core?  The ‘core’ refers to the area of your body between your diaphragm and pelvic floor.  It includes the joints of the lumbar spine, lower thorax and the pelvis. There are many muscles that support this region which include the transversus abdominis (deepest abdominal layer), multifidus (deepest back muscle), pelvic floor muscles and diaphragm.

Recent research has shown that the deep muscles of the core function differently from the superficial muscles (oblique abdominals, rectus abdominis and long back muscles).  The deep muscles prepare us for movement and they work no matter what we do, they are not movement or direction dependent. They work in synergy with one another varying their levels of activation as they anticipate the impending loads that are about to load the trunk.  The timing and amplitude of their contraction is vitally important, so they can provide control to the joints of the back and pelvis.

What is the difference?  Exercises for the core that focus on timing and co-activation with other muscles of the core are called core training exercises.  Exercises that then take a well-timed and co-activated core and load it are called core strengthening exercises. It is vitally important that the timing and amplitude of muscles contractions are optimal in order to provide control to the joints in low back and pelvis.

Why is the timing and co-activation important?  Research has shown that it is the timing, or synergy, of the co-contraction of the core muscles that is affected by back or pelvic pain or by fear of back pain.  When we lose this timing and co-activation, the pain and dysfunction persist.

Current motor control theory suggests that the problem stems from the disruption in communication between your brain and the core muscles (motor planning problem).  Since you cannot strengthen a muscle that your brain is not using, your current core strengthening exercises may merely be reinforcing a non-optimal pattern of muscle activation that you already have.  Furthermore, this inhibition or delay in timing of contraction does not improve once the pain is resolved. One study followed people from their first episode of acute low back pain for several years and found that some people still had non-synergistic muscle patterns—and they continued to have frequent episodes of acute low back pain!

Training the optimal sequencing strategy of the deep core muscles is key for efficient movement.  Once you can activate the deep muscle system synergistically, it is time for core strengthening exercises.

As a Doctor of Physical Therapy, Karen has studied extensively on how to properly train the body for effective movement… changing the way you live and move in your body.  It’s a powerful combination to train with Karen who has advanced studies in rehabilitation and progressive Pilates training.

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