“Core” No More: 10 Reasons to stop using the word “Core” by David Nowotny

Am I the luckiest yoga blogger ever?? David Nowotny wrote this rad, comprehensive, clear list of reasons to stop referring to the concept of “core” as fitness/movement/yoga instructors. He’s got me totally convinced! What about you?

1. There are multiple “core” definitions, and it confuses students.

Some definitions don’t include the rectus abdominis, but then instructors cue crunch type exercises; some definitions include the muscles of the hip and shoulder–which act on the spine and pelvis–but under that definition almost every movement becomes a “core” exercise. Some confuse the cue, “Pull the navel into the spine,” with “core” (They are different). Simply using the word “core” doesn’t adequately define what you are talking about. It’s about as specific as saying, “Warrior one works your legs.” OK, fine. If I wanted to meet a friend for lunch in New York, I’d have to be much more specific than suggesting, “Manhattan in November.”

2. There is no consensus “core” training program.

Bridge, plank, medicine ball training, balance work, crunches, back extensions, etc. have all been labeled “core” training. If there is no differentiation between the hundreds of exercises (nor a differentiation between the 5 or 6 different definitions of core musculature), then the phrase “core training” has no meaning. It is all simply “training” or “exercise” or “movement” of your “abdomen” or “torso” or “tissues”.

3. No particular “core” training program has been demonstrated to be more effective at reducing back pain than other non- “core” training methods.

Further, in any study showing benefits of “core” training, the benefits don’t require a specific set of “core” muscles; the benefits are more simply explained as coming from “exercise”. And further still, promising to reduce pain and cure injury crosses a barrier in the standard of care for a yoga instructor. Legally, you should be referring out known injuries to physical therapists and orthopedists. If you are trying to treat an undiagnosed and unspecified injury involving pain with specific moves, you are liable.

4. “Core” strength will prevent pain is a false statement that over-promises.

See #3. Also, it doesn’t matter how strong your “core” (no matter which definition you chose) is; herniated discs, spinal stenoses, nerve entrapments, bone spurs, arthritis, etc. will still cause back pain and movement disfunction. It would be just as true to say, “Core strength will prevent heart attacks.”

5. “Core” exercise would be no more important than exercise of the shoulder, hip, foot and ankle, etc.

Muscle recruitment from around the abdomen is not higher than from the arms in handstand: they are both equally necessary. For most yoga moves, full body strength, flexibility and endurance is important. Lacking an adequate combination of shoulder mobility and stability is potentially injurious, which is the same as with any other joint in the body.

6. “Core” training would violate the law of specificity.

[The Law of Specificity:]  To get better in any activity, you must precisely practice the skill that you wish to develop.  A concert cellist like Yo-Yo Ma certainly doesn’t improve by playing the guitar.  We all know that daily repetitions of the bow through the exact range of motion across the cello strings at a rate called for by the composer will make for sweet sounds.     -Roy Benson

The muscles stretched and strengthened are specific to the exercise that you chose, at the angle you perform it, at the speed you move, relative to that position regarding gravity. Performing plank strengthens a particular set of muscles (A large set, by the way, here are a few at each joint: the Splenius capitis, deltoid, pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, Flexor carpi radialis, external and internal obliques, intertransversarii, the spinalis group, intercostals, tensor fasciae latae, adductor brevis…to name only a few.)
In contrast, performing side-plank would activate most of the same muscles as plank–but at different joint angles, in a different position relative to gravity, with different co-contractors and synergists, requiring different coordination between them; which means there are different physiological benefits too. Each different exercise would train the musculoskeletal system in a different way. And each is important.
Since you can never train one “core” in more than one position, you are simply training a variety of muscles, in different of positions with different methods. Just say that. Or, go learn the muscles and their names so you can use them to help people.

7. The concept of “Core” is too narrow.

It erroneously takes a complex and infinitely variable human body (see #6), and places too great of an emphasis on a small combination of muscles. Whichever definition of “core” one uses, there are always more sets of muscles than just the “core” involved in any given exercise. These other muscles must learn to interact–to plan, time and sequence–their movements with any defined “core” muscles. If not, they will interfere with “core” function. This means these other muscles must be trained every bit as much as the “core” does, which would make them “core” muscles too. Which means, all training is “core” training–or else there is no “core” training.

8. Your dog doesn’t need “core” work.

Improperly ascribing better performance or increased strength to “core” work lacks a larger perspective. Surely our ancestors didn’t survive hostile environments and evolve despite this large oversight on the part of nature.  Does a lion need “core” work to improve its hunting? Would you ask a cave man to drop to the ground and do some alternating arm/leg raises before they go after a mastodon? Of course, past humans and wild animals don’t live our modern lifestyle, wedded to chairs and cars and fatty food. But isn’t that the point? Maybe the appropriate program for performance and health includes changing how we move throughout the day. Not by taking on these weird movements designed to correct 23 1/2 hours of inactivity with 30 minutes of targeted but really unnatural “core” exericises. Now, I am for alternating arm/leg raises, and understand that they are beneficial in very specific ways–but for at least 10 reasons, I don’t need to justify their use with the term “core”.

9. Over-emphasis on “Core” training keeps people from saving their own lives.

A mountain of medical research has proven that cardiovascular training reduces the rates of stroke, heart attack, diabetes and cancer. How many times have you heard an instructor cue students to, “take a walk tomorrow”? A few, I’m sure. How many times do you hear the word “core” in an average class? In one class, I heard it 15 times (I counted). There is an imbalance here, and it may cost some people their lives.

10. Now’s your chance to get ahead of the game, and keep the trust of your students.

At some point in the future the infatuation with the term “core” will go out of style. Research will more clearly delineate which specific moves impact individual weaknesses and inflexibilities, and the monolithic “core” philosophy will be scoffed at. Leaders of teacher trainings and workshops will distance themselves from the “core” word–and you will have students in your class asking you, “I noticed you used the word “core”, but in a seminar I took last week the instructor said there was no such thing, and that we should be working on our…” And the new buzzword game will begin.
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2 thoughts on ““Core” No More: 10 Reasons to stop using the word “Core” by David Nowotny

  1. Well written blog post David! Thanks for sharing your expertise and knowledge. Thanks Ali for posting! I am convinced. Great message that as yoga teachers it is important to get specific when we teach- – what do we mean, why are we doing the pose this way versus that way- – , and not just throwing out a nebulous cue just because it is the current buzzword or we hear someone else cue it ‘that way’. I also like what you write about how ‘core’ over promises and misleads. It is important not to leave out or under cue other forms of movement or pieces of the yoga practice that may lead to a healthier and happier practice. Look forward to the next blog post.

  2. Thank you. And another one: in the weight-loss-and-weight=maintenance-challenged, core emphasis underdelivers weight loss.

    Possible slight raise in metabolic rate or muscle definition, but not so much on weight management.

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