My core has never been this sore! A well- held a belief in strength training: If you’ve got your core, everything else follows. There’s nothing like exploring one’s abdominal strength, or lack thereof, while simultaneously (and rather breathlessly) conducting interviews with some of Jackson’s most popular health and fitness gurus.
As a former athlete and yoga instructor, I’ve explored myriad approaches to abdominal strengthening and workouts that cater to every type of individual and style. Recently, I turned to a host of local experts to dissect the components of core strength, dispel the mythical six-pack abdominal complex and reveal how we can simultaneously be strong and supple in our deepest center. I may also have just stumbled upon a new multifaceted fitness craze.
First, do some Pilates with someone who knows how to put you through the reformer paces. Then work with a personal trainer throwing heavy balls all around a small gym while lunging, balancing, jumping and contorting into every imaginable position. Next, go to to a Gyrotonics studio with an instructor who’s studied closely with the brothers who invented and refined this graceful hydraulic resistance training — complete with pulley towers and an inversion arch lovingly nicknamed “Archie.” Throw in a few days of isometric yoga poses — held until you’ve successfully challenged all your mid-sections muscle attachments — and voila! Instant. Abdominal. Awareness. Move like a serpentine dancer, lunge until your PSOAS muscles catch fire, play catch on one leg, strap in, soften your pelvic floor, and oh yeah, try to remember to breathe with fluidity. Some members of our fittest community already have similar regimens. But how fluid is our strength?
Jacksonites comprise a rare demographic. Many locals have a history of core strength as a consequence of years of uber athleticism. If anything, some of us need to learn to soften rock hard abs to have full access to breath, flexibility and agility. Regardless of where you fall on the proverbial abdominal spectrum, core muscle balance is as important as tone in terms of stability and longevity.
According to Michele Dorsey, seasoned Pilates instructor of the Pilates Place, “True core strength has a lot to do with the resilience of muscle tissue and the core’s ability to naturally redistribute our body weight.” Dorsey sites the example of how resilient women’s core muscles become during and after pregnancy. Even though the saying, “pull your navel toward your spine” is commonly uttered in Pilates and yogic circles, Dorsey says, “one can’t walk around with their abs that toned … or we wouldn’t be able to breathe or have a baby for that matter. She elaborates, “For a lot of women, they feel like they’re carrying so much weight in their arms [in plank for example] because they’re not distributing the weight into their feet through the core.”
One of One of the things Dorsey looks for in her students is, “where is someone initiating movement from?” She adds, “To engage core strength in Pilates, as with yoga, one begins with the breath. In essence, the breath becomes the super highway to the core.”
If we take a 3-dimensional look at both the superficial and deeper abdominal muscles we must include the unobstructed movement of the diaphragm. Ideally, our abs can achieve a stasis, or a state of relaxed tone, so that our internal organs can swing in their connective tissue hammocks while we breathe freely through a spectrum of dynamic activity. If core muscles are disproportionately overdeveloped, the ability for respiration and spinal movement is diminished.
Michele’s first objective is to see where a person is breathing from and what part of their body may be stuck. According to Dorsey, “Elite athletes are usually tight in the back of their diaphragm, the muscles along their mid- back, sides and lower trapezius muscles.”
From walking to sitting to standing to holding plank pose, one can better use the core to distribute body weight. Even when we stand still we can make subtle changes in the body to activate our abs and reinforce alignment. Scott “Smitty” Smith, the owner of One to One Wellness, explains the basics. “If we simply bring the weight of our gravity line back into the heels we can change our body’s connection to our core.”
Training everyone from people in their 80’s, to celebrities, to NHL athletes in a similar fashion, Smitty’s focus is to teach his clients to transfer their energy and power from their feet to their fingertips. Since he opened his doors 16 years ago, he’s continued to study exercise physiology and has seen a lot of trends come and go. Through his private and functional training classes, he supports the trend to amplify vertical core-training techniques. He says, “We’re vertical mammals and we do a wide range of vertical activities … so we can train our core vertically for maximum translation for those activities. Whether you’re reaching into the back seat to pick up your 30-pound child or whether you just went through a mogul run or kayaking down the river, you need full access to your core.”
“Six-pack abs lay on top of all the valuable core muscle exercises we talk about, says Smith. A fashion statement we can associate more with vanity than true vitality, the rectus abdominis muscles have a simple function — to bring the torso upright. When you move away from the hourglass figure, the mid-region actually fills out and becomes more balanced in both form and function.”
And what about the health of the low back in relationship to the abdominal region? Smitty believes back pain comes primarily from three different causes.
He says, “Most people have strong, over-worked backs that lead to poor posture, tight hamstrings, and weakened pelvic floor muscles. Underneath the six-pack lie those pelvic floor muscles. If we can recruit the low abs, we can send a signal to the back to release.” Bobbi Reyes has been a massage therapist for 20 years, training as a personal trainer for 10. Her work at Excel and Studio X is rooted from personal experience with her own lack of core stability induced from chronic back pain. An undiagnosed congenital deformity lead her on an alternative therapy quest, then a surgical journey. Her physical challenges have been instrumental in her mission to educate and inform her clients. “Training the body to be stable and efficient from its center of gravity,” is her optimal goal. Her clients hold isometric (engagement without movement) positions for longer and longer periods of time, until they, “learn to access their own bodies, so they can best help themselves.
“True core strength,” to Reyes, “is more associated with the pelvis’ ability to maintain a balanced and neutral position relative to the position of the ribcage in functional movement.”
Erin Corbett, owner of Core Pilates concurs. She says, “The biggest change in my understanding of core strength has to do with the word “strength.” Balance of the musculature is much more important than specific core strength. “As I experience a Pilates reformer for the first time, Erin instructs me to find my “ground zero,” or aligned foundation, and build outward from there. We also talk about the importance of the transversus abdominis muscle, or the TA. Erin describes the deepest, innermost abdominal muscle as a stabilizer to our spine that lends support to our trunk. She points out, “The TA is also the key muscle for genuine core stability.” Erin adds that people often think that crunches and sit-ups alone will give them a flat stomach. “When we activate our TA, we also engage our deepest back muscle, the multifidus, as well as our pelvic floor. The result of working these muscles is improved posture and support to our vital internal organs,” she says. Corbett concludes, “To strengthen our deepest muscles, and also work our smaller stabilizing muscles is a combination that is imperative for core strength.”
A former dancer, Colleen Downard discovered Gyrotonics from her foundation of Pilates. Gyrotonics focuses on increased range of motion and the decompression of the spine while lubricating the joints,” she explains. She found the language of the discipline let her explore her body in new ways, alleviated her scoliosis symptoms and unwound tightness in her abdominal area.
As we move from pulley to wooden pulley machine, Colleen guides me to feel my “seed center,” (the core energy that radiates from the center of my body), out into fluid limbs. She tells me of the days when she used to have the nickname, “Abs.” After years of focusing on her rectus abdominis muscles, she came to realize that her visceral issues, her PSOAS and diaphragm tightness and her stagnant digestion were caused in part by the rigidity in the front of her body. Her segue into Gyro taught her that breath, combined with softened core movement, connected her to the energy of the inner body, not only strengthening the core, but clearing stagnation. There are families of exercises in Gyro where the serpentine movement’s spiral quality extends the spine, providing expansion of the core before contraction.
Fitness instructors inspire us to engage the body’s muscles in intrinsic ways — ways that support full body strength, not only through awareness of the deep core, but also through the current of energetics supported by the breath. “The core is like the team captain of the body,” says Dorsey. We are all born with an intrinsic knowledge of our core. We learn to crawl and eventually determine that walking upright is more energy efficient. Over our lifetimes, through repetitive motion, inaction, and injury, we may disconnect from our ability to evenly engage our deep abdominal strength. In order to cultivate true core strength, we can relearn to soften, strengthen, lengthen and breathe into our shiniest centers.