How to get optimal strength, stability, and flexibility in your core

What does core strength really mean, and why is it so important?

The most common misconception about core strength is that it means simply having strong abdominals—like the enviable washboard stomach achieved by developing your rectus abdominis muscle.

In truth, optimal core strength means having balanced flexibility, control, and power in all of the muscles in the core of your body: your abdomen, lower back, and waist. These muscles support your body in upright posture and allow you to move naturally and efficiently.

Core muscles have the potential to be very strong, and the spine to be extremely flexible. To move safely and efficiently, our core should be providing most of the support and be doing most of the work in the movement of the body. The muscles and joints of our extremities should simply be extending the movement that’s happening in our core.

If your core is out of balance in some way, you’re at risk for back pain, back spasms, disc problems, scoliosis, lordosis, kyphosis, sciatica, joint pain and injuries, and many other musculoskeletal conditions.

The dangers of having imbalances in our core muscles

First, since we’ve been using “core strength” as a broad term, let’s define how we actually want our core muscles to function. We want to be able to use our core muscles through their full range of motion; to be able to fully contract and fully release them as needed in order to do the movements that we want to do. In other words, we want control.

The dangers of having imbalances in the control of our core muscles are many. In fact, they can be blamed for nearly all functional musculoskeletal conditions. Let’s start with the most common one: back pain.

The dangers of tight lower back muscles

Many people develop chronically tight muscles in their lower back as a result of stress, heavy lifting, sitting or standing for long periods of time, or athletic training. Chronic tension in the lower back muscles makes it more difficult to contract the abdominal muscles, because the back muscles can’t lengthen to allow the abdominal muscles to get shorter.

Core strength lordosis

When you can’t use your abdominals in a natural way to support the core of your body, you use your back muscles instead. This can cause a vicious cycle in which the lower back muscles continually get overused and keep getting tighter because it is increasingly difficult to use the abdominal muscles. People with chronic, involuntary muscle tension in their lower back are likely to experience muscle soreness and pain, back spasms, bulging and herniated discs, sciatica, and osteoarthritis in the lumbar vertebrae.

The dangers of tight abdominal muscles

Having overly tight abdominal muscles can be just as dangerous. When the abdominal and thoracic cavities are constantly compressed, we are at risk for digestive problems, shallow breathing, high blood pressure, frequent urination, and even impotence. People with chronic tension in the abdominal muscles also tend to develop kyphotic (rounded forward) posture over time. The muscles in their back and neck then have to work extra hard to keep them standing upright, and as a result they often experience back and neck pain.

Core strength kyphosis

We should not be holding our abdominals tight all the time; we should simply be engaging them when necessary to support our posture and movement. When you learn to use your core muscles in a balanced way, then your proprioception (internal sense of body position) and the resting level of tension in the muscles will keep you in a natural upright posture without you feeling as if you have to suck in your stomach or pull your shoulders back.

The dangers of tight side-bending muscles

While it’s important to have balanced control of the muscles in the front and back of your core, don’t forget about the muscles on the sides. Your internal and external obliques, quadratus lumborum, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae group, and iliopsoas work to bend your spine to the side and hike up your hips one at a time. If there is an imbalance of tension in these muscles, you are likely to develop scoliosis, functional leg length discrepancy, and hip and knee pain on one side.

When the use of our core muscles is out of balance in some way, not only do we experience problems in the core of our body but in our extremities as well. The joints and muscles of our arms and legs end up taking on more weight and range of motion than they are built to handle because they are compensating for the lack of movement, support, and control in the core. This is typically the cause of pain, recurring injuries, and joint degeneration in the hips, knees, shoulders, elbows, and neck.

First, develop balanced control of your core muscles

If you have chronic muscle tightness or pain, a recurring injury, or a musculoskeletal condition (such as sciatica, scoliosis, or disc or joint issues), jumping right into a core strengthening routine may make your condition worse. Strength-building exercises typically enhance our existing patterns. We tend to stay in our learned, dysfunctional muscular patterns unless we take the time to slow down and retrain our muscle memory.

So before you start building strength, you need to develop balanced control of your core muscles. Clinical Somatics exercises work with the nervous system to release involuntary muscle contraction, retrain proprioception, and increase muscular awareness and control. The exercises are ideal way to regain voluntary control of your core so that you can stand and move in any way you want to—powerfully and without pain.

If you are interested in learning Clinical Somatics exercises, the best way to start is with the Level One Course. This two-month online course teaches Clinical Somatics exercises that work with the core of the body. The exercises in the course allow you to release and gain control of all of your core muscles as well as your hip flexors and rotators and the muscles of the shoulder girdle. The exercises are slow, gentle, and suitable for people of all ages and physical abilities.

Then work on building core strength

So, what is the best way to build core strength?

If you’ve made progress in releasing your chronic tension and evening out imbalances in the tension of your core muscles, then you can start working on building strength. There are endless core-strengthening exercises you can find by searching the internet. For example, here’s a list of the “20 Best Abs Exercises Of All Time To Strengthen Your Core.”

As you begin to focus on building strength, always remember that how you practice the movements is just as important as which movements you do. You already know this from practicing Clinical Somatics exercises, but now you can apply this principle to your strength-building exercises too. I strongly recommend reading the book Deep Fitness by Philip Shepherd and Andrei Yakovenko. The book outlines an approach to strength training developed by Shepherd and Yakovenko, which they call Mindful Strength Training to Failure (MSTF).

MSTF involves practicing resistance exercises extremely slowly, so that you bring your muscles to failure within about a minute and a half instead of 10 minutes or more. It is the safest, most effective, and most efficient method of strength training I’ve found. By practicing the exercises extremely slowly, you’re able to focus your attention on your alignment and how you’re using your muscles. This is the first approach to strength training I’ve ever found that is in line with the principles of Clinical Somatics, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to my students.

In addition to practicing exercises that target specific core muscles, you can improve your core strength by doing any full-body movement. If you consciously engage your core muscles and focus on moving with good form, you can get a core workout from any type of exercise. And if you’ve taken the time to develop balanced control of your core muscles, then moving with good form should come naturally.

Some general rules for improving your core strength:

  • Spend an equal amount of time working out all parts of your core, unless you are making up for a lack of strength in one area. Make sure you’re moving in all directions: forward, backward, bending to the sides and twisting to each side.

  • Always start by moving slowly and gently in order to warm up your body and remind your nervous system of how exactly you want to move. Once you have warmed up your body and mind, you’ll be ready to move more quickly and with more resistance.

  • Be sure to do all movements through your full range of motion so that you maintain full control and do not develop chronic tightness in your muscles. Beware of typical strength-training exercises which tend toward shorter ranges of motion and fast movements. These types of exercises decrease range of motion and control—the opposite way we want to train our core.

  • Stay aware of your posture and movement as you move. Keep checking in with yourself to make sure you’re using good form and that you are engaging your core muscles in a balanced way.

  • Take the time to work with your transverse abdominis muscle, a deep abdominal muscle that provides essential support. Most people never consciously engage their transverse abdominis, and their core strength and stability suffer as a result.

  • Learn about your iliopsoas, which is often tight on one or both sides. A tight iliopsoas can contribute to lower back pain, hip pain, lumbar scoliosis, functional leg length discrepancy, and other types of pain and misalignment. If you can release chronic tension in your iliopsoas and learn how to use it through its full range of motion, you’ll greatly improve your core stability and strength.