By nature, we are always trying to find the most efficient and minimalist methods that give us maximal results. At least 80% of people will experience back pain at some stage in their lives. Improving “core stability” and training the “core muscles” is the most widely accepted and researched conservative method for the management of lower back discomfort. It is no surprise then that people are often searching for the best exercise to strengthen this region.
The trouble is that there is no single best exercise to strengthen the core muscles. The reason for this is that the core muscles work differently under different circumstances and there are various factors that influence the muscles that are recruited and how they are activated. Ultimately the goal of training the core muscles is to create stability for the lumbar spine. While the joints in the lower back are positioned to allow us to bend forward and backward and to the sides, they are not designed to rotate very far. The muscles around the lower back and pelvis aim to limit the amount of rotation which helps to limit unwanted stress.
One of the factors that determines how these muscles provide this support is what the spine itself is doing. Static conditions where the limbs are moving and the trunk area remains still require different activation methods compared to movements whereby the trunk is required to move. It is therefore important to ensure that your exercises reflect both of these conditions.
Another factor that affects core muscle function is loading. The greater the load, the greater the muscular requirements. This also works the opposite way and often we exercise to tolerate heavy loads but neglect training movement patterns without load. These are the situations in which we usually come unstuck with back pain. As there is no external load, we move into positions without conscious thoughts about our posture and joint positions. Over time this can create repetitive stress that can slowly damage the tissues.
Perhaps one of the most important factors that effects the core muscles is experience which is shaped by our level of threat and previous injury. As Janet Travell says “after an injury tissues heal but muscles learn”. Initially we adopt a protective pattern of muscle recruitment that allows us to repair. However when this new program becomes ingrained it can change the way we move and load the tissues and joints in the lower back. This is usually more problematic than the original injury and requires work to restore optimal patterns of muscle function.
While some exercises are more beneficial than others, when it comes to core stability training there is no one single exercise that meets all the needs of the area. Exercises need to challenge the body when the trunk is both still and moving, when it is loaded and unloaded and ultimately any abnormal patterns of muscle activity need to be reprogrammed to ensure that the body functions at its peak.