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Is core training a fitness myth?

Michele Borboa, MS is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health, fitness, food, lifestyle, and pets. Michele is a health and wellness expert, personal chef, cookbook author, and pet-lover based in Bozeman, Montana. She is also...

Debunking the core strength myth

Back pain is a common -- and debilitating -- medical problem that can greatly interfere with everyday activities and quality of life. The National Institutes of Health reports 80 percent of Americans suffer from a back injury at some point in their lives - with many people reaching for over-the-counter relief such as aspirin, ibuprofen or anti-inflammatories. If you are relying on medications to relieve your back pain, you should know that these medications are only seemingly effective; long-term use can lead to stomach ulcers in addition to a ceaseless cycle of pain since medications are band-aids and not solutions to rid back pain for good. Specializing in chronic back pain relief, physical therapist Mitchell Yass, founder of New York-based PT2 Physical Therapy and Personal Training, shares a pill-free fitness plan that goes beyond the idea of core strength. If you've been focusing on your abs to relieve your lower back pain, don't do another crunch until you read Yass' recommendations for developing long-lasting back support.

Woman with strong back

Go beyond the core in resolving lower back pain

Go to any gym, read any health magazine, and you'll find that core training is the rage when it comes to improving fitness, posture and physique. There is a widely held belief that strengthening the core muscles is also the key to resolving lower back pain, with the premise being that back muscles need assistance from other core muscles to adequately support the torso; otherwise, the lack of support will create strain and back pain.

Mitchell Yass, author of Overpower Pain: The Strength Training Program That Stops Pain Without Drugs Or Surgery, cautions people to think beyond the muscles of the lower back, abdominals and obliques, because focusing only on the core too often results in no reduction in back pain. Yass, who has specialized in chronic pain relief for the past 15 years, offers a more comprehensive approach to achieving core strength and decreasing back pain.

Truly understand your core

According to Yass, core programs were created -- and took hold in the fitness industry -- much like step aerobics, spinning and other popular workouts. "The term and ideas of the 'core' seem to have stuck the longest, but that doesn't make them legitimate," the physical therapist explains.

Abdominals are unquestionably weaker than the lower back muscles and the lower back muscles are substantially thicker than the abdominal muscle group and have a more direct attachment to the rib cage and pelvis than does the abdominal group. The lower back muscles are not responsible for holding the organs in the abdominal cavity, which makes them more adept than the abdominal group for supporting the lower back. However, you can't focus solely on lower back strengthening because it will create detrimental postural and muscular strength imbalances.

Short muscles cause imbalances

It helps to understand the way your muscles work alone and together. Yass explains, "A muscle creates force based on the length of the muscle as well as based on how many muscle fibers exist. Muscles create their greatest force in the mid-range. If a muscle is shortened or lengthened beyond this mid-range, it loses its ability to create force and can make the muscle susceptible to straining or going into spasm."

In the case of the lower back muscles, strengthening these muscles with the understanding that they are stronger than the opposing muscles (the abdominal group), will only shorten the lower back muscles. This will create a situation where the lower back muscles are not at their optimal length to create force and are susceptible to straining or going into spasm with any awkward movement or excessive force. When a person says that their back went out because they bent over to brush their teeth, in most cases, it is because the lower back muscles were shortened to the point they couldn't support the load of the individual leaning over. So, if core strength isn't the panacea of supporting the lower back, what should you be doing to prevent back injury and pain? Look below the belt and find balance.

Balance is the key to back strength

According to Yass, maintaining proper balance of the front thigh (quadricep muscles) and the back thigh (hamstring muscles) is imperative for relieving low back pain because both of these muscle groups attach to the pelvis.

"They have the ability to tilt the pelvis forward or backward," says Yass. "The quads are typically stronger than the hamstrings. Since the quads attach to the front of the pelvis, the shortened quads pull the front of the pelvis towards the floor." This causes the back of the pelvis to rise, and shortens the distance between the back of the rib cage and the back of the pelvis, shortening the length of the lower back muscles and causing them to lose their ability to create force.

The key to sustaining strong lower back muscles is to balance the hamstrings and quads. Yass recommends lower body exercises that strengthen the hamstrings, since the quadriceps have a natural tendency to be stronger. "To keep the hamstrings strong, utilize straight leg deadlifts and hamstring curls," he adds.

This doesn't mean, however, you should neglect your core strength and upper body conditioning; it just means refocusing your health and fitness efforts to balance your body and prevent or relieve low back pain.

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