When you think of core training versus core strengthening, you’d be forgiven for assuming the two terms are synonymous. You might hear the two terms being used interchangeably at the gym. But in fact, no – it turns out there is a significant difference between core training and strengthening. What is core training and core strengthening? What are the key differences? When should you do core training, and when would core strengthening be more appropriate?
Anyone with back pain knows they probably need to “work on their core” if they want to reduce their pain. Maybe you’ve already looked into core exercises, but you’re not sure what’s right for you. What does this mean? Where is your core? When should you exercise and how often? Of course, every situation is unique, but in this article, we’ll lay out the definitions of some key terms and suggest what may be right for you.
What is the core?
You may already know what to do to improve your core strength. But which specific parts of your body make up your core?
The term “core” means the space from your diaphragm to your pelvic floor. It encompasses the joints of your lumbar spine, chest or low thorax, and pelvis. In addition, various muscles help support this region. Besides your diaphragm and pelvic floor, your deepest abdominal and back muscles, the transversus abdominis and multifidus, are other essential core muscles.
How does the core work?
Your core has two types of muscle: superficial and deep muscles. Your core’s deep muscles work differently from the superficial muscles. Your deep muscles don’t just prepare you for movement but get worked no matter what you do – any direction, any action. When they’re fully functional, your deep core muscles work in harmony. Each muscle can vary its activation level ahead of the pressure a load will be putting on the trunk. The precise amplitude and timing of each muscle’s contraction are imperative for adequately controlling the back and pelvis joints.
So, what’s the difference?
Some exercises for your core emphasise timing, precision and co-activation with other core muscles. These are called core training exercises. These exercises train your core to know how to move correctly when under pressure.
The exercises that focus on loading an already well-timed and co-activated core are called core strengthening exercises. When your core is healed and ready for action, core strengthening exercises load it to heal it further and increase your mobility.
What’s so important about core timing and co-activation?
It turns out that pelvic and back pain affect the timing and co-contraction of your core muscles. It seems like visceral pain – pain from your bladder, uterus or bowel – can also prevent proper core functioning. In this case, it’s thought that the problem comes from disrupted communication between your brain and core muscles. Since it’s impossible to strengthen a muscle your brain doesn’t think it’s using, any core strengthening exercises you currently do may just be reinforcing a negative pattern of muscle activation!
On top of this, while your pain may improve with core strengthening exercises alone, the delay in the contraction timing does not. Studies have followed people who experienced back pain and discovered that people still had out-of-sync muscle patterns years later. These people also still had episodes of acute low back pain.
Why use core training exercises?
Core training exercises aim to restore your deep muscle timing and sequencing. The transversus abdominis muscles, the multifidus, the pelvic floor and the diaphragm (of the lungs) are in the lumbopelvic region. We try to teach your body to produce the proper contractions before cementing and strengthening your core.
However, since this system is anticipatory and your brain would fire your muscles, you cannot work on this region with active exercises. So instead, treatment generally entails plenty of images and preparatory clues while your practitioner guides the correct contractions. We will help you to imagine and feel your way through the movements without you physically doing anything. We might then teach you to feel for the correct contraction so you can do core training exercises at home. Core training exercises like our physio rehab and other physiotherapy treatments teach your core muscles how to switch on properly rather than putting them under strain.
Who are core training exercises for?
Many people can benefit from core training exercises, but these exercises are more beneficial for some people than others.
Core training exercises are great for anyone with a poorly functioning core. Core training exercises are brilliant for anyone who has given birth several times, especially if they are experiencing pain. They might also be anyone who consistently experiences mild lower back pain or pain that only occurs while attempting other exercises.
Other signs of a malfunctioning deep core include:
- Breath holding
- A rib cage depression
- A bulging abdomen
- A posterior pelvic tilt
When should you use core strengthening exercises?
Only when your deep muscle system is fully healed and ready, with the ability to activate synergistically, are you prepared for core strengthening exercises – like pilates. At this point, when you add loads through your trunk, arms or legs, you will be functionally strengthening your body for optimal stability but without limiting your mobility. You will be able to recognise the correct contractions by yourself. It would help if you integrated this stable pattern of muscle activation into any exercise you do.
If you keep doing inappropriate exercises like core strengthening exercises while you have an underlying deep core muscle deficit, you can see how it is easy to reinforce the negative pattern. But if you keep supporting incorrect habits, you could end up with extreme pain, tissue breakdown, or even reduced mobility. This pain could be lower back pain, plantar fasciitis, knee pain, or even shoulder pain. Everything is linked to your core, after all.
Training your core’s deep muscles without being 100% certain of the problem and without a thorough assessment can be challenging. That’s why we recommend you book an appointment with us before you do anything else. This way, we can get to the bottom of your pain and determine what is best for you before we recommend the next step.
Core Training vs Core Strengthening – What’s the Difference?
Ever wondered what the difference between core training and strengthening is? Want to know which is right for you? Check out our posts to learn more about your body.