“I really need to strengthen my core.”
For years I’ve been hearing about the concept of Core Strength. Whether it’s at a dinner or party or from a perspective Alexander student, they talk about how important core strength is. They associate core strength with health, good posture or, as we say in the Alexander world, ‘good use.’
There is some truth to their claim. There are muscles lining the spine that allow us to, for one, balance on two legs rather than four. And if these are inactive, they atrophy and are not available when we need them.
But these muscles can be difficult to access. They activate best when we are balancing ourselves, specifically, balancing our head on top of our spine, like a top hat on the tip of a cane in the palm of our hand. These are best accessed by good form or – I believe we’ve aptly named it – good use. Unfortunately, we often rely on large, external muscles groups, which are ill-suited to the task.
There’s a growing list of training techniques claiming to ‘strengthen the core.’ Pilates is one. I have taken dozens of Pilates classes and thoroughly benefited from and enjoyed them. If taught well, they can be a great ivory tower to work on strengthening the body with good form. But it is the form that is more important than the muscles. The muscles will follow suit.
The challenge is what happens when we leave the ivory tower. We could do 1000 core strengthening exercises and then pick up our purse or check our cell phone like this:
photo Stephane Hamel
When what we really need is to learn to do it like this:
photo Stephane Hamel
If we learn to do that (well coordinate the whole system as it’s designed), the core will strengthen, perfectly as required, every time we pick up our phone or do any other human activity.
What’s paramount is HOW we do things or ‘use’ ourselves.
I should also mention that there can be some pitfalls to these core strengthening exercises if done improperly. If we associate good use with holding, clenching, or over-tensing muscles to stand or perform other human activities, we are interfering with our design and this can cause problems.
Just look at how kids move: they don’t suck in their abdomen or tuck their pelvis to stand up or do anything. And neither do we have to as adults. This excess force not only wastes energy and strains the musculature system, but it constricts our breathing and internal organs. Plus, we often tire after a while from this effort (it can be exhausting), and then collapse the whole system.
What we can do instead is balance the skull on top of the spine. If the head is in good relationship to the neck as we do any activity, that is all the core strength one needs.