Tracy Lease: The core of the issue
Let’s try an experiment. Stand in front of a high shelf and reach for something.
Pay attention to the area of your body between your lower ribs and your inner thighs. Do you notice muscles in this “powerhouse” or “core” of your body engaging to stabilize you? If so, great!
Muscles of your core are connected to your consciousness and turn on when you use your limbs. If our limbs act without core stabilizers contracting first, we may end up with injuries.
Discussion about the “core” has been occurring for years now. In part, this is a result of studies in the 1990s which demonstrated that people whose core stabilizers activate before they move their limbs are much less likely to have spinal injuries or low-back pain. People wanted to learn how to awaken their core muscles. These days entire classes are designed around core strength.
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Pilates equipment, designed to help integrate limbs with torso and create balanced movement, is found in physical therapy offices, gyms, ballet studios, as well as Pilates and yoga studios.
The core is a network of muscles and fascia that stabilizes the spine and pelvis and, by extension, the arms and legs. The pelvic floor, muscles along the spine, and a corset-like muscle — the transverse abdominis — all help stabilize the body from the center. According to Lauren Elson, MD, in her article Understanding and Improving Core Strength, “Core strength is less about power and more about the subtleties of being able to maintain the body in ideal posture — to unload the joints and promote ease of movement.”
I used to think that strengthening the core meant getting a washboard stomach by doing 100 V-snaps, like we did in gymnastics when I was young, or repeating crunch after crunch like guys in my college gym. During Pilates training I realized strengthening the core is more about paying attention and learning to feel for muscle activation all the way around the torso. I realized I needed to become conscious of, and then train muscles, before strengthening them.
I learned my brain and nervous system need to turn on my internal core or I would compensate in ways that may not be best for my body. Many of us use substitution strategies which include holding the breath, bulging out the abdomen or tilting the pelvis. I wanted to take the time to hone techniques to achieve healthy core activation so my body will be healthy as I age. One benefit of this work was I learned a few well-performed, graceful and conscious exercises are better than many mindless repetitions.
Dr. Lauren Elson, MD, goes on to say, “As we age, we develop degenerative changes, very often in the spine. The structures of the bones and cartilage are subject to wear and tear. Very often we can completely control and eliminate symptoms with the appropriate core exercises. Having strong and stable postural muscles helps suspend the bones and other structures, allowing them to move better.”
Muscles can create space along the spine, balance load and act like shock absorbers. I have experienced this firsthand. I have four curved structural scoliosis. After I took Pilates classes I grew three-quarters of an inch! For the first time in my adult life I had no chronic pain in my spine. I remember feeling that there was more space between my vertebrae, more room in my body.
Good core programs focus on developing awareness of patterns of movement and waking up conscious connections to our muscles and how they work with each other. It is rewarding to see students stand up taller, find their balance, feel connection of arms and legs through the core of the body and feel more confident moving. These rewards can come from Pilates work: conscious breathing, paying attention, and exercising for even just an hour a few times a week.
Katherine Keenan, a retired registered nurse and Polestar-trained Pilates teacher says, “If we don’t learn to use stabilizing muscles, we are more likely to go out of our healthy range of motion.” She tells her students, “Organize, stabilize, and then move” — good advice for all of us regardless of physical activity.
Here is today’s challenge: Notice which muscles activate as you prepare to move in any activity, whether hiking, gardening, dancing or playing baseball. Can you consciously engage stabilizers? If not, Nevada County is home to many great Pilates instructors who can assist you.
Tracy Lease, owner and director of Full Life Yoga Studio has a passion for teaching yoga, Pilates and Mindfulness. An experienced registered yoga teacher and PMA-certified Pilates teacher, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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