Relax Your Core??

Neuroanatomy: Core

it’s time to give your core a break!


Ever heard the cue “engage the core 30%” in a movement class? How about just “engage the core”? I want to discuss why these cues might not be the most useful in our yoga practice (and really any movement practice).A lot of us have been taught to consciously grip or “engage” the core in our yoga practises. Either in particular asanas or even throughout an entire session – the idea being that it’ll help build strength, create more stability, and even “protect” the spine.

But is it really doing that?
Why we want unconscious, reflexive engagement instead

Before we begin any movement the brain and body make “Anticipatory Postural Adjustments”(or feedforward postural adjustments). This an unconscious, predictive engagement of the core musculature about 100-50 milliseconds before movement (which is super fast!).

Basically your brain does a series of lightning quick calculations about how much engagement your core needs to accomplish your movement goal (changes in load, perturbation, direction, speed, respiratory demands, etc..) and then it sends that info down into your muscles so they engage in just the right way for the movement-demand.

For example, think about catching a football someone throws at you. Your brain makes a series of calculations in anticipation of catching the ball and sends that information to your core muscles which causes them to engage the correct amount (efficiency is key!). Most of us wouldn’t automatically think “okay this football is coming at me, I need to make sure to brace my core 30% to make sure I’m stable.” That would be impossible, right? 

And the fact is that your unconscious brain areas are far far superior at making these lightning fast calculations than your conscious mind. The speed, complexity, timing, and activation of specific parts in a specific sequence is just completely beyond your conscious scope. It’s like asking an abacus to do the job of a graphing calculator – the results would be painfully inferior.

But Andie, What’s Wrong With a Little Extra Engagement?

Won’t it just make me stronger?In a 2006 study¹ about conscious core engagement they found: “Participants were able to stabilize their spine effectively by supporting the load in a naturally selected manner. Conscious, voluntary overdriving of this natural pattern often resulted in unbalanced muscular activation schemes and corresponding decreases in stability levels.” 


So basically, when they consciously tried to engage their core they made things worse. And not only that, but when they were told to engage by 30% they caused “…significantly compressive loads activating on the low back which have been linked to low back pain and injury.”

Um, yikes much?
  In Summary:     
    ◉ Reflexive core engagement > conscious gripping
– Safer
– More efficient
– More stable       
  ◉ Tell your brain what the movement goal is & it will get you there!

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