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People who exercise often associate the term 'core strength' with tensing-up the abdomen. That isn't core strength; it's just tensing. It isn't even 'the core'.
If you tense-up the abdomen it is very unhealthy.
Rock hard abdomen?
Let's say that you had the misfortune of being in a car crash and you were dragged out of the car unconscious... The paramedic discovers that your abdomen is rock hard.
What do they think? That you're in great shape? No. They'll think you have something seriously wrong with you. Don't take my word for it. Ask a doctor. I did.
The abdomen is not the core
According to Liz Koch, author of The Psoas Book, 'the core' is about the psoas muscle and the stabilisation of the pelvis. The focus is not the abdominal muscles.
Many people exhibit an anterior pelvis tilt or a posterior pelvic tilt. This is either sticking your backside out or tucking the tail bone under. In both cases, the pelvis is incorrectly aligned.
An 'anterior pelvic tilt' is where the pelvis pushes the buttocks backwards. This shortens the lower back. Women who seek a 'bubble butt' perform this action deliberately. It is very unhealthy.
The pelvis is tilting such that the top of the pelvis goes forward and the bottom of it goes back. This causes the upper torso (and the whole, body) to lean forwards.
People compensate for this by pulling the ribcage up and back; which stretches the abdominal muscles whilst compressing the spine.
The opposite pelvic misalignment is the 'posterior pelvic tilt'. This is where the buttocks look as though they're pulled under; causing the individual to lean slightly backwards.
A good test for this is to sit on the ground with both legs and feet together; directly in front of you. Now, sit up straight, without forcing it.
If you have a posterior pelvic tilt it will be very hard to sit up straight. This is caused by sitting on your backside too much and not adequately exercising the leg and back muscles.
The aim of 'core stability' is to stabilise the pelvis: whereby it does not tilt backwards or forwards...
This is achieved by relaxing the muscles adequately to enable the pelvis to achieve correct skeletal alignment and then strengthening the surrounding muscles in order to make this a physical habit.
Please note that the abdominal muscles are being worked... but they are not tense. A tense muscle is contracting, shortening. This is the opposite of relaxing.
Core stability requires the muscles to be neither floppy and flaccid, nor tense.
Once the pelvis is stable and the muscles toned, it is possible to perform a whole range of exercises designed to maintain core stability whilst doing a wide range of physical actions.
Lack of core stability
If a person lacks core stability and attempts a mat-based core strength exercise, they are most likely going to roll the pelvis to the left or the right during the exercise.
This needs to be remedied by cultivating 'core stability' (hence the name).
Students start by learning psoas exercises. These help to stabilise the pelvis. Three of the exercises are easy. One is difficult. When all four feel fairly easy the pelvis will be more stable.
There are two sets of leg stretches to learn. In addition to the psoas exercises these serve to improve pelvic alignment and increase muscle tone and relaxation.
Simple leg stretches are vital for suppleness and flexibility, particularly if your job involves a lot of sitting.
Core strength exercises
Core strength exercises were designed to work areas of the body that are typically neglected. This is very useful. Whole-body strength requires all of the muscles to be toned, not just a few.
Yoga, qigong and form do provide an extensive workout, but there are still certain muscles that aren't getting sufficient exercise. This is where core strength training comes in.
By training a series of core strength exercises our students develop greater muscular awareness and engagement of the muscles located around the crotch, groin, hips, buttocks, lower back, legs and abdominals.
The muscles become stronger and more supple. They can do more. They can handle more. Greater flexibility. Range of movement. Increased coordination.
This in turn means that when performing any tai chi movement, the student is utilising a greater number of muscles and can recruit them in practice.
Engage your core?
To summarise, tai chi students will never be asked to "engage their core"... i.e. tense-up. It adds nothing to the art and simply perpetuates bad habits.
Tai chi is not about moving from the core. It is about moving from the 'centre' and these are not at all the same thing.
• Hip & groin
18 April 2005
Last updated 01 October 2020