Core Strength? Butt Firing? Cardio? How do we Interpret Fitness Fashion Words?

In a healthy physiology, just before we go to do a thing, a reflex signal is sent via the NS to the brain. For example, if I see a heavy-looking bag and go to pick it up, ideally, the required protective muscles activate automatically and I don’t have to think too much about it. This happens when things are functioning as they should. 

Maybe 30 or so years ago now, it was discovered that in SOME people, the required “protective” lifting muscles (transverse abs – TA) did not automatically engage. Back pain continues to be a serious problem that keeps many people away from work. Discovering the cause for certain individuals is tricky and ongoing.  At that time, it was discovered there seemed to be a link between SOME people whose TAs did not engage automatically and back pain.

It was determined that for THOSE people, it might be useful to stop, think and CONSCIOUSLY engage those muscles BEFORE participating in said “lifting” activity (for example). From here on after, this largely idiosyncratic, “pre-action” gained monumental traction – particularly early on in Pilates and Fitness teacher training. Those teachers went off into the world of health clubs to spread the word and the action became defined as “engaging the core”. This, combined with the oft-given instruction to “squeeze the navel back to the spine”.

What is also interesting is that when certain parts of the body are injured, the advice might be to “mobilise” or “guard” that area. But not forever! Just while it is healing or because it is sore when undertaking certain activities. It also doesn’t necessarily mean we ought not to move at all. We just need to protect the bit that is sore or injured.

This was the original purpose of Pilates’ reformer; it was for those who needed rehabilitation. The back doesn’t necessarily have to move when a person is supine, but a reformer still makes it possible to exercise other parts of the body quite efficiently. However, some Pilates books from this era have very clear instructions for certain postures and exercises that specifically state, do not move the spine! Personally, I remember some of my early Yoga teacher-training facilitators observing this philosophy back in 2002.

So what does this all mean?

Well firstly, of course we need to move our spine! Every which way it can move! If it was supposed to be completely static, it would be one bone, not 26 -odd separate joints. Some of the biggest health problems in the modern, Western World come back to stiffness and immobility in this area.

Secondly (and in accordance with many lectures given by my physio-therapist teacher), the idea may indeed have gained traction, but was in fact, largely misunderstood and misconstrued. Now though, we have a whole generation who was (and still are) constantly told in fitness classes (include modern Yoga in that) to “engage” the core, which – since this instruction is rarely explained – has meant squeezing…everything! Arguably, the whole phrase and what it stands for has more or less become a meme that just won’t go away.

Physically, emotionally and physiologically, the issues that have come about for many people – particularly women – as a result of this constant tightening and tensing are way too many to mention, but include things like constipation and digestive issues, anxiety, stiffness in the hips and shoulders, sexual disfunction, fertility issues / endocrine problems and…..voila! Even more lower back pain!

Lately though, TAs are taking second-place and we are suddenly all about butts. A few years ago, I had a had a whole group of ladies who had been told they apparently needed to squeeze their buttocks tightly whenever they were standing still.  Apparently nobody’s glutes are firing anymore and butts are the new core! But….but…

Yes, Ok, there may be some truth to this in terms of the fact that modern life involves lots of chair sitting. It is the enemy of our bodies and does nothing to strengthen – or “activate” the glutes. It’s a dud posture that, performed for long enough, can turn glutes weak, flat and flabby (among tons of other things!). People with desk or driving jobs might be in that position for between 6-15 hours per day and then come home, eat dinner on a chair at a table and then adopt the same pozzie on the couch for some Netflix time!

However, “squeezing” and “tensing” is not the answer (unless of course, something is about to fall out ..). Squeezing the butt cheeks is a fear response so it sends the wrong message to the NS. Plus, are you really just “isolating” your glutes when you squeeze? Or are you simply tensing everything “down there”? This blocks energy, diminishes circulation and quite possibly leads to many health problems similar to those mentioned above.

And on the other hand, there are many people out there who simply cannot switch their glutes off. This is a person stuck in a fear state. Subconsciously or unconsciously waiting for something untoward to happen. Ideally, a healthy muscle can be switched on and switched off at will or when it’s appropriate because the NS is responding to a perceived physical action.

To summarise, in a modern chair-bound life where there is very little incidental movement for so many of us (which would solve every single one of these problems!), it’s far better to find the exercise or movement that naturally determines the muscle engagement the body needs. The result then is organic, not “artificial”. In other words, it’s the difference between having to consciously “think” about the result you want first and then trying to make it happen (this sounds more like rehab yes?). Instead, we have presence and focus.

This is often described as the “flow state”.

Think about it a minute. When you take yourself off for a walk do you take each step considering which muscles you need to switch on and off to make it happen? It’s unlikely for most of you out there (unless of course you are learning to walk again). When the majority of healthy people go for a walk, particularly in nature, we walk, and even if we talk, we absorb our surroundings. Unless you have strapped weights to your pumping arms, are obsessed with a Fitbit and are all about the end result, walking can be absolutely wonderful – a dynamic meditation! As we move, muscles organically switch on and off. We are usually relaxed in our mind. Blood flows and our mood will tend to improve.

Organic muscle activation is an autonomic NS response (again provided those signals are working). Move in a certain way into a certain position and all the muscles required for the action naturally engage. This leaves your mind free to focus and your diaphragm free to breathe in a relaxed way. This is ideal physical Yoga and it’s what I am aiming to teach in class.

As an example of core work, butt work and what actually is meant by cardio vascular (another meme, since what we tend to label as cardio is actually aerobics), let’s break down the pose in the image, Naralumba Ardah Chandrasana – Unsupported Half Moon Pose.

It doesn’t matter whether you hold a wall or a chair for balance or have your lifted foot high off the floor or touch the toe tip gently to the floor. Provided your lifted big toe is turned as if towards the ceiling, the glute muscles will be firm and strong in this position, as are the quad muscles (try it and see). The hamstring and inner thigh muscles (adductors) will also be relaxed and in a lengthened position.

If you are able to twist slightly as if you are turning the navel up towards the ceiling (without overly arching the back – ribs in in other words), some of you will notice a pelvic floor activation. Provided you are gripping the mat or standing surface with your standing foot and have a slight bend in your standing leg, all the muscles around the ankle, knee and hip will be engaged and strong (bandha). If you create the “mudras” (gestures) with your hands, this nerve tensioning exercise pulls blood into your fingertips (cardio-vascular) and also stimulates the lung meridian. Some of you might notice this action can help clear your nose.

If you press on the side of your belly on the lifted leg side, it will be super firm and strong – ditto the lower back muscles on that side. Provided you are not habitually squeezing, the belly muscles on the other side (standing leg side) will be soft and relaxed. This enables you to breathe. Squeezing inhibits the diaphragm, 

Because the glute muscle of the lifted leg naturally engages in this position, the muscles at the front of the hip – the hip flexors – that are perennially short, tight and stuck due to chair culture, naturally soften. lengthen and release (a little bit anyway!!). Apart from the fact that this will make your pelvis feel slightly freer and your back feel better, this hip-flexor muscle (iliopsoas) attaches to the diaphragm. Can you see how tension and tightness here could affect your breathing if it’s never alleviated? How this tension could set of a chain of events that might create more physiological problems in your body?

(If you follow this version of the pose with the twisting version – or even just turn the lifted leg from an externally rotated position where the foot turns up to one where the foot turns in and thigh internally rotates, the buttock muscle will relax, the hamstring and the adductors will engage and, among other great benefits, this is a fabulous way to strengthen the knee.)

Lastly, hold either version of this pose for a little while and you will become warm. As you move out of the posture all those muscles that were held naturally firm by the position will release. This is similar to how a dam works. Blood cannot flow freely into a tight muscle so when a muscle engages, the blood is pushed out; once that muscle is released, fresh blood moves in. It’s similar to how a sponge absorbs water when soft and pushes it out when squeezed.

This is cardio-vascular. A healthy flow of blood, energy and information moving freely throughout the entire body. A circulatory system that isn’t constantly impinged by tightness and tension whether conscious or unconscious. It happens with any nourishing movement practise, particularly if there is internal relaxation and focus.

I hope this makes some sense. Yes, some people have certain issues with their body and its communication signals, but one size does not fit all and instructions and ideas can be misconstrued  – not least because we all interpret things differently. Some things, for whatever reason, simply gain momentum but may only be relevant to a small portion of the population.

It’s far more useful on an integrated and holistic level to find exercises and natural movements that enhance blood flow while building strength, mobility and flexibility. This happens when our core and other muscle groups engage in a more positive and organic way. In Yoga anatomy/physiology “the core” applies to far more than just the TA area and includes the navel, the diaphragm, the digestive organs, the rectus abs (washboards!) the psoas, and the whole of the lumbar, sacral and pelvic regions.

The point then, is to enhance the health of the nervous system, which is hugely prominent in this area of the body and is related in some way to every single aspect of your being! There is no doubt in my mind that continually working against what is natural plays a major part when considering any lack of body/mind connection and communication in the first place. For example, many neurological illnesses (including age-onset) are defined by *increasing falls.

*As an experiment, stand up straight and tilt your weight forward towards your toes. What happens? For most of you, nothing really except your toes automatically grip the floor to stop you falling over. Did you have to think about it? Probably not. This is your healthy SNS at work. Keep it that way!

Still not convinced? Check out this awesome short video of Bruce Lee demonstrating the power behind his “one inch punch”. He was small and light – apparently about 61kg. It’s a perfect example of how less effort, when combined with a focussed and present reflex mind is far more potent.