For some time now, core stability training has been a
fitness-industry panacea. Without it, we are told, you risk poor
posture, lower back pain, mediocre sports performance and a less
than flat stomach.
But, says Spencer McGawley, a functional fitness and therapy
specialist, "Many experts are adopting the view that core stability
training is limited in its functionality. That's not to say it has
no value at all, but it has been taken out of context, and its
benefits wildly overplayed by the fitness industry."
The premise of core stability training is that certain muscles
in the trunk and pelvic area have a role in protecting the spine
and keeping the core of the body stable, thereby giving a solid
foundation from which the limbs can work.
Core stability workouts target muscles that, so the theory goes,
are lazy and do not "switch on" when needed. The main player is the
transversus abdominis (TA), a muscle that wraps round the lower
trunk, which is engaged by pulling the navel towards the spine in a
move called "abdominal hollowing".
"Much of the focus on the TA came from Australian research which
found that lower back pain sufferers had TA dysfunction," McGawley
explains. This led to a belief that back pain was caused by the TA
not "being recruited" in time to protect the spine during movement,
and that isolating the core muscles would "retrain" them. The
evidence to support this is equivocal.
A recent study from the University of Queensland found that
isolation of the deep abdominal muscles could successfully improve
recruitment patterns in lower back pain sufferers, while training
the trunk muscles in a non-isolated manner (performing general
abdominal exercises) could not.
But Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the
University of Waterloo in Ontario - and a pioneering researcher in
the area - now believes that strengthening the TA can worsen back
pain and reduce back stability.
In a recent study, he and his team found that abdominal
hollowing worked less effectively in stabilizing the lumbar spine
than a full abdominal muscle co-contraction (basically, contracting
or "bracing" the whole area).
Therefore, says McGill, "There seems to be no mechanical
rationale for using an abdominal hollowing action, or the TA, to
Other experts are dubious about our ability to "override" the
neuromuscular system and teach muscles when to switch on and
"I've seen many lower back pain cases who are failing to get
better because of core work," says Roy Palmer, an Alexander
technique teacher and sports coach. "Trying to control the actions
of specific muscles is in opposition to the nervous system's role
in ensuring that movement is executed with minimal stress to the
body. We should not attempt to directly control muscle recruitment
for movement or exercise. It should be the thought of an act that
initiates our total muscle response."
For healthy people in search of a flatter tummy or a more
powerful running stride, here, too, a growing number of experts
believe that core stability training falls short.
"Core stability was born out of a specific problem: lower back
pain," says Diane Kheir, an osteopath who lectures on core
stability. "It was never meant to apply to the general population,
and for most people, there are better ways of working these
muscles. Rather than have everyone lie on the floor with their legs
in the air, exercise classes would be better teaching correct
standing, sitting and transferring of weight from one leg to
another. Teachers could ensure that participants learn moves that
relate either to their normal daily tasks - there hasn't been
enough attention to the connection between an exercise and its
relevance to daily living."
"Core stability training isn't tailored to most sports," says
Professor Eyal Lederman, an osteopath whose research centers on the
development of neuromuscular and movement rehabilitation. In other
words, it doesn't replicate the activities involved in those
While some question the very validity of stability exercise,
others are more concerned that it is being taught wrongly. Pilates,
practically royalty as far as core stability workouts are
concerned, has recently come under fire from many quarters.
But according to Suzanne Scott, founder member of the Pilates
Foundation, it's not Pilates that is at fault, but its
misapplication and unrealistic client expectations.
"In the public perception, Pilates has come to equal core
stability," says Scott, who works with elite athletes in functional
retraining. "It is presented as being about lying on the floor
doing isolated muscle exercises, which isn't what it is about at
all. Pilates' original approach was far more holistic."
Scott believes Pilates has been a victim of its own success;
demand from the general public has resulted in large classes and
insufficient experienced teachers. "We discourage our students from
teaching large groups of varied ability and experience. The ideal
is small, pre-assessed groups, combined with some one-on-one time,"
Core stability training does have its uses, though. "The core
should work naturally," says Kheir. "It's what's known as a
'pre-anticipatory' muscle group - it fires before other muscles
fire. The only time it won't kick in is if someone has lower back
pain, or has had some kind of abdominal surgery or injury, in which
case the person may need help in trying to locate and recruit it
Experts warn core stability training is not tailored for everybody.
Photos courtesy of Quanjing
(The Guardian via China Daily February 20,