I am a Pilates Instructor. I don’t Cue the Core.
All Pilates Instructors cue the core don’t they? Not just Pilates Instructors either. Also it is teachers in aqua aerobics, dance aerobics, HiiT (high intensity interval training) , Strength and Conditioning classes, Bootcamp, Spin classes. I have encountered people who cue the core for when you are simply walking.
As a non core cue advocate, I feel the need to justify myself and explain my actions around why I don’t cue the core.
Perhaps you are not sure what I mean by Cue the Core
What is generally meant by that phrase “cue the core” is that in advance of an exercise, or during it, you will be asked to
“tuck in your tummy”, “engage you core” , ” brace your abs” ,
“suck in your belly” , “pull your abs in” , “draw navel to spine”
These statements, or cues, assume several important things
- we have a thing, the core, that must be contracted prior to the exercise
- that the core is the abs
- we are all talking about the same thing when we say “engage the core”
- that we all know what those phrases mean
- we also know how much pre contraction to apply. The exercise hasn’t happened so you can’t rely on lifting a load to make a judgement about how much strength is needed
There is a lot wrong here. To cue the core is common place. These kinds of verbal cues ubiquitous teaching points, heard by a lot of people.
To Cue or Not To Cue: that is the question
I do believe that the core exists.
The core isn’t one muscle
Core stability isn’t just one movement.
Core stability is a dynamic, ever changing response to our activities of daily living
The body needs to be supple and responsive to a amazing variety of things it can do. That includes anything from watching TV, doing a cartwheel, having sex, getting drunk and trying not to fall over, or flying a kite. The list is quite literally endless and variable. Perhaps some of you do those things all in one evening. There may be some activities you have never done. How about: Wearing the Crown Jewels. A supple, dynamic core would enable you wear them safely whilst standing regally and with poise.
What do you think the Core is?
Go on, have a think? What is it
This is what I know the core is
We have an Inner core which consists of the muscles that box in the organs of the body (minus the heart and lungs).
The diaphragm at the top, pelvic floor at the bottom, deep abdominals at the front and segmental spine stabilisers at the back
The Outer Core helps to transfer movement from the legs to the trunk and keep us stable whilst we go about our daily lives. This article talks fairly succinctly about this : https://www.physio-pedia.com/Core_Stability
The article includes in the list of outer core muscles: all the other abdominal muscles (apart from the deep abdominals that I mentioned above as part of the Inner Core), the back muscles, the hip muscles. Hips is a rather vague term but essentially all the big muscles of the legs and bottom. Personally I’d include the mid and upper back muscles too and even the back of the shoulder arm.
I chose this article because it talks about core stability as stiffness in the trunk . This is true but it is exactly the kind of language that is confusing. We need an appropriate level of stiffness but that might not be not much at all. You might be picking up a plumptious, wriggling baby from the floor, or, a pencil sharpener. You might be wearing the Crown Jewels, or curtseying in front of the King.
The mere use of the word stiffness implies somehow that we need to be washboard stomach-ey, if you know what I mean.
Straight away we have the murky world of what core stability is and crucially what provides it
For me, one thing above all others is important:
The core is not the abdominal muscles
However, it has come to mean that for a lot of us
The abdominals: hmmmm. Over rated, over worked . More on that over here
I have asked many people what they think the core is over the years and mostly they tell me it is the abdominal muscles, or simply say the tummy muscles and point
The majority of 1:1 clients who come through my door inform me that they have a weak core. Sometimes they have been told that by a doctor or manual therapist like a Physio, and equally often they have simply made that assumption
This assumption is important. People assign much pain, injury, exercise competency issues to a “weak core”
It is practically dogma. I can’t do an exercise or I have a back injury (or back pain) because I have a weak core.
This one makes me very sad: I am fat so I have a weak core. I’ve heard that plenty of times.
Let’s just deal with this shall we:
- Being fat doesn’t necessarily make you weak or predisposed to injury. However living in a fat phobic society makes people think that their weakness or injury is due to being fat. To be honest this next point is just a logical deduction
- The core as most people understand it doesn’t actually exist, therefore it can’t be weakened by being fat
The real inner unit of core stability does exist, as does the very real notion of true, dynamic trunk stability. They are affected by your size but by lots of other things too, like too much stiffness, being too sedentary, ageing, Life. The Universe. Everything, frankly
Core stability is complex and multi factorial and it changes with every single exercise or movement. Practically quantum.
When I tell people I am a Pilates Instructor I tend to get the same thing. People talk about their core, my core, core work, how Pilates is for the core.
Core this, core that, core the effing other
This hasn’t come from knowledge of their body. It has come from assumptions driven by the fitness zeitgeist. The same one that tells us we should all be doing Couch to 5K training. (You don’t. More on that story here: https://www.pilates-leeds.com/couch-to-5k-panacea-for-inactivity-or-road-to-nowhere/ ) The same fitness zeitgeist that would have us all constantly sipping water and consuming whatever food is currently in vogue as super
Once upon a time, no one had a core.
We all had a body with arms and legs and if you did exercise, it was either Sport or taught to you by Jane Fonda, or perhaps even the Women’s League of Health and Beauty
Then the core became The Thing.
Now it is very much the muscular must-have isn’t it
Why did one little subset of muscles, the rectus Abdominus become supremely important for ALL exercises?
Why would “engaging ” yours abs be so vital that it has to be separately cued, for everything. In a dynamic whole body of moving parts, why would they be more vital than anything else?
I don’t know how all of this came about
Yogis for the last 3 thousand years haven’t cued it. No Eastern Martial Arts cues for it. Nor did Joseph Pilates.
Yes, there you have it. Joseph Pilates, eponymous inventor of Pilates, did not cue the core
Core, and core cueing gives the impression that the core bits are more important than other muscles, vital for the execution of all exercises and of course if you don’t “use /engage” them things won’t work properly.
I’ve been in many a class and heard people say “engage the core”, “draw in your core”
This list goes on: “draw your navel to your spine” , “tuck in your abs nice and tight” and an old favourite “zip and hollow” that is: pull up your pelvic floor and in with your abs. When I trained, nearly 19 years ago now, we were taught to tell everyone to “zip and hollow” before every exercise.
What does engage mean? I’m guilty of using jargon. I forget, which is naughty of me, that people don’t know where their sacrum is or their glutes. Engage is up there as mystifying jargon
You might think: well, I know what happened when I got engaged to my fiancée. What am I supposed to do here: throw a party?
In advance cueing
When was the last time you engaged your arm muscle prior to putting the kettle on?
Did you engage your calves prior to walking across the room to sit down just now?
How about engaging your knee muscles when you last walked up a flight of stairs.?
As you read this, your eye muscles are presumably working to move your eye ball along the line of prose. Do you think you’d read better if you engaged your eye ball muscles?
(Don’t try that at home)
There are difficulties when you cue the core in advance
If you are going to engage muscles in advance , how do you know which ones? The quantum core is a different subset of muscles subtly doing different things according to which movement you are doing
There is something even more important
The body is designed to be responsive to the demands placed upon it. That is why you don’t need to consciously engage the arm before you pick up the kettle.
Ahh I hear you say, but what about for a new movement when you have to focus more and gain control
It is a fair point but when we learn a new activity you kind of just do the thing, and make the shape. It is like that when learning to write, or drive, or when people who have had a stroke learn to walk again. You don’t approach it in terms of actively contracting a certain muscle. If you needed that, children would never move beyond the foetal position of birth
Core control and Guarding
One category of people who do tend to over recruit muscles in advance are people with chronic low back pain who do “guarding”.
This is entirely understandable. It is a bracing of the trunk in the belief that you will be safer when you move.
However, it tends to lead to the system being grippy and stiff and it rarely helps. Even people with lower back pain are best watching the degree that they use or overuse their “core”.
What Does Happen when you “engage the core”
What I mean here is, not the true core. I’m talking here abut Core as abs
Well, there are a couple of things that we really should guard against.
Disrupting the breathing
With every in-breath the diaphragm contracts thus extending the rib cage down and out. With that there is a small relaxation of the abdominal muscles . The Gif shown in this post shows that relationship, albeit in simple terms. With the out-breath the opposite happens
There is a bit more about the detail of the breathing here: https://www.pilates-leeds.com/good-breathing-how-why-we-should-take-it-seriously/
If you stiffen the abdominals prior to moving then you risk inhibiting the breath. This happens because the abdominal muscles attach to the rib cage. If you contract the abdominals then you exert unnecessary influence on the breathing because of this ribcage effect. You will still breathe: the body will find a way, but you disrupt the natural flow of the body and potentially before every single exercise you embark upon
It is a supreme irony that true basic core stability is gained from good, correct diaphragmatic breathing. Good breathing is the very essence, the very foundation of good core control. I would go so far to say: poor breathing leads to poor core control
When we walk the spine naturally rotates . If you over use your abs you prevent that natural action because the ribs are “locked down” by the tight abs and basic movement is potentially disrupted
Within exercise classes, you might wish to move your spine into a curl or reverse curl. This is made more tricky if there is tension in the abdominals . The spine cannot freely move.
Does it prevent Weakness?
What does weakness mean? What does weakness look like or feel like?
Most of use assume we have weakness because the fitness zeitgeist tells us we need a strong core. Or some half naked Gen Z who looks great on a Instagram whilst doing a Core Workout makes us feel weak. (And inadequate)
If we are all going around engaging our cores, or pulling our abs in nice and tight will we be less weak?
It will put more tension in the system but here ‘s the thing. A lot of us are disfunctionally tight already. I see this over and over again when I teach. People are tense, rigid and almost immoveable in their trunk. We have got tight with being a bit too sedentary for a bit too long, or with work related movement patterns. Occasionally it is over training and exercise that is the cause
The worse thing we can do for our body is load it up with more tension
Instead, what we need to do is to release tension to allow the muscles and joints to move and work more easily
“It won’t matter if I do a sneaky bit of of core engagement will it?”
I have a suspicion that people do this
They think it is going to make them look thinner, give them core strength or magically melt away tummy fat.
I suspect that some people who “engage their core” will do a bit extra, just to make sure, to be better, stronger, safer, more ripped, toned
You won’t become stronger in the long run. Nor will you be safer.
However you will put more tension into the system
You won’t even be more toned. That tummy fat does go somewhere you know, you are simply temporarily moving it, and not to a good place
Why should we believe you Alison?
That is a good question and I don’t really have an answer because it is hard to prove
BKS Iyengar didn’t cue the core, nor did Joseph Pilates. Anyone coaching elite athletes will avoid it because it doesn’t reflect how the body truly works and because it affects the breath. I am not alone, it is just that the prevailing winds are against me.
An interesting thing for you to do would be a kind of A/B test on a set of exercises. Do every one with and without pulling in your abs and see how it feels
(Do try this at home)
Back to the wind. How will we be able to cope walking in wind without a strong core? If we haven’t got a strong core how will we survive slips and near miss falls?
A system needs to be supple and responsive not rigid. Trees bend in the wind, as do high rise office blocks. Our power is via contact with the earth, from the bottom up, not from the inside out. The more rigid you are the less able to cope with a sudden trip or slip because the system cannot respond by modifying and reacting
This is the vanguard of an easier. gentler, less grippy way to move.
We need more of this right now. We are all living through a serious existential crisis: War, famine, climate change, inflation, struggles with the cost of living, a fear that our health needs are not being met
This plays out in our bodies. We are tense, tired. Muscles are over worked, like our brains
What is needed in movement and exercise is less muscle tension, not more. At the very least “as much as is necessary and as little as possible”
I’m not at all suggesting that we should only do gentle exercise. I’m totally in favour of a gym workout, jogging or aerobics. I simply think that we should respond with the right amount of work and tension and not be grippy, effort-ey and over tense.
We should expand our breathing not limit it.
Ideally, aim to spread and relax our bodies not compress them tighter and smaller , but now: I am becoming a CORE BORE so good bye
NEXT MONTH: Part II How I cue and teach core stability