S'all about the Buzz

Right now, the buzz is all about the CORE.  CORE this and CORE that.  Well, what the hell is the CORE anyway?  When I started having back troubles, my physiotherapist told me I had weak core muscles.  I said “pardon” she must have been mistaken, either that or she hasn’t seen my chiseled abs.  HA.  I said, “Well, I feel pretty strong” poking at them with vigor and watching my knuckles collapse on impact.  Like steel.  That should show her.

“Not those muscles” she replied, rightfully embarrassed for me.  “Those are what we call ‘Superficial Muscles’, they may look good from an outsiders perspective, but they won’t do much for the health of your back or your alignment or even your rock climbing.  In fact, that’s probably why you’re here, your superficial muscles are stronger than your core”.  I wanted her to stop calling them that, ‘superficial’.  I worked hard for those muscles dammit, not to mention the strength I assumed they’d supply me.  But in the end, she was right, all this time I was working the wrong group.  In fact climbing is probably what led to this.

Tight hip flexors, tights soas muscles, strong upper abs and a strong mid back has allowed me to get away with a lack of CORE strength for the last ten years.  I’ve been using all the wrong muscles to perform my movements and now at 29,  it’s starting to add up.  I’ve had more lower back discomfort these last two years than ever before, and I realized that if I don’t make a serious change soon, this could lead to something a lot more serious than just some minor aches and pains in the night.  Here’s a picture for the ladies, notice my, er… I mean this guys toned upper abs.  They may look good, but you have to wonder, – How strong is his transversus abdominus?   And I know you’re wondering.

BUT, there is hope on the horizon, or so I have found, and I’m not the only one who’s experienced this.  It seems wherever I go traveling, I’ve come across people with the exact same symptoms.  It’s called anterior pelvic tilt, and it’s more common than you may think and beware that it can easily morph into lordosis.  There is also posterior tilting that exists, but lets focus on one thing at a time here.

Society’s pressure on external aesthetics have guys in the gym doing abdominal crunches until blue in the face and girls working on their asses, so they can put it out on display and lure the less intellegent gender (men) over to buy them a free drink.  Don’t get me wrong, it works everytime, but the issue here is on our overall health and wellbeing. Isn’t it?  Notice the serious emphasis on the pelvic tilt here in this picture,  what’s the message?

Perhaps 150 years ago, this wasn’t such a big deal, men and women got their workouts in the field, out on the farm, trying to survive, now days, life is easier and there is such a thing called RECREATION and it’s growing at an incredible rate.  Not that recreation didn’t exist back then, but now it’s become a lifestyle, and for many people, even a career.   You can get paid to be an athlete if you’re prepared to be one of the best.  But to be the best you need to earn it, people today are training harder and getting stronger than ever before.  But not always without consequence.  If you train improperly, you’re going to do more damage than good.  I’m learning this as I go.

The Transverus Abdominus is a corsette than WRAPS around your lower bodies organs.  Below the rib cage we have very little to protect ourselves, except our Trans Abs.  Because my stonger more “superficial” muscles have done all the work, I’ve litterally lost connection to my Transverus Abdominus, it took me three days of trying just to be able to send brain signals (neurological transmission) to the area and start firing them consistenly.  Now, I do it all the time, while eating, stretching, working, walking, breathing.  I’m constantly trying to keep my CORE engaged.  Otherwise, we get sloppy, we get weak and eventually, we get injured.  Not to say this will happen to everyone, but some of us are at greater risk than others.  Doing yoga has taught me many things in the last 2 years, but I can’t thank it (or Lydia) enough for helping me correct my back pain.  I still get sore from time to time, but nothing like in the past and I’m getting better and stronger every week.  Here is a picture of the CORSETTE or girdle concept.  It’s the only thing that can protect you from injuring your spine,  it’s all or nothing.  Also, keep in mind, an aggravated spine can even lead to pain in the knees and ankles too.

To engage these muscles, try laying on the floor on your back, relaxing and then squeezing the top of the pelvic bones together, across your stomach.  It’s like when you get into cold water for the first time and you want to lift the jewels up to protect them, YAh, now you got it,  it’s those muscles.  They’re all connected. try it.

If neglected for too long, things can get out of hand fast and soon you’ll have to deal with an accute case called Lordosis, which as the diagram describes is an exagerated lumbar curve.  I find many climbers use our extremeties to pull ourselves in, while yogis use their core.  Climbers pull hard and engage the core last, if at all, while yogis initiate nearly every single movement my engaging the core first and foremost and then branching out.  This is the sort of awareness I’m working towards.

In conclusion,  take care of yourself,  invest in yourself, invest in preventative treatment, it’s like maintenance, a small bit of work each day can save you years of pain and suffering and perhaps surgery tomorrow.  I’m working every day to fix the damage I’ve done to myself, and not just climbing, mountain biking, surfing, snowboarding and drunken party tricks.  They add up and it’s time I head them off,  join the core users of the world and hopefully be stronger than ever.  I hope you can get something from this, it’s really directed toward everyone, but mostly atheletes.  Besides, it doesn’t mean you have to ignore those superficial muscles, but I’m thinking a strong core and a pain free body is going to be a lot sexier in the long run.

  • verrrrrrrrry interesting, sonnie. so now that i know – i have to do something about this corsette Transverus Abdominus situation. do you think regular yoga would be enough to strengthen it?

  • Andrew

    Are you engaging your pelvic floor too Sonny?

  • Lee

    We spend so much money on hangboards, gym memberships, and climbing shoes. All to keep us climbing, which keeps us healthy and happy. But because we’re climbers and we’re always healthy, we never bother investing in our self-maintenance. I’m 31 and had the same revelation in the last couple of weeks when I went to a chiropractor (who is also a climber) for the first time, and learned of all my imbalances. We wouldn’t buy a top notch sports car and then NOT bother to get it regularly serviced.

    So, here’s to getting (*ahem*) regularly serviced.

  • intrinzic

    Very nice post Sonnie – these ailments affect almost everyone to some degree.

    When I started my yoga practice to rehab a fractured fibula, I would feel tingling, like pins n needles, in the arches of my feet, back of calves and hamstrings during certain poses. This lead to a google search, where I learned about my weak core, psoas & piriformis syndrome, and a whole host of imbalances affecting myself.

    Now I visit a chiro for ART – Active Release Therapy (this is the trademarked term I believe search for myofascial release) – basically stripping scar tissue off my psoas and piriformis. It’s hella painful, but i’ve come to look forward to it now that I can feel the benefits – confidence in my yoga practice, increased flexibility & range of motion, decreased nerve blockage (this caused the pins n needles) and a huge increase in general well-being.

    Bottom line is, if you have a weak core, lower back pain, or tight hips and hammies, it’s not gonna get better on it’s own (quite the opposite). There’s no quick fix – since these problems compound over time, it’s gonna take some time to correct them. See a chiro or massage therapist to hit those trigger points – I recommend looking on campuses with large sports programs – they’ll typically have clinics which offer these services (make sure you feel comfortable and are seeing some results). Practice yoga with a knowledgeable instructor – don’t be afraid to try different places until you find one that fits you.

    Here’s a few links – wish I had more, but google is your friend.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1RARwli_Zs – great for finding your psoas.

    http://www.lifewest.edu/courses/syllabi/lower-crossedsyndrome.pdf – page 7 has some exercises to work the transverse abs, the rest is pretty informative as well.

    peace & good luck!


  • Steve

    Good read and great to have it brought to attention. The only thing missing is “How?”, you don’t mention any exercises to strengthen the corsette muscles. Is it just yoga or are there a multitude of sit-up/crunch variations that will help? How do you shift emphasis off the “rectus abdominus” onto the “transversus”?

  • D

    So that explains John Dunne!

  • i dunno…. LORDOSIS sounds super cool to me. “fool, i have lordosis, bow down to my iron will, lest i throw you in the dungeon!” still working on it, but i KNOW it could be spun cool

  • Daniel

    There is a gallery of core strength and flexibility exercises Udo Neumann’s site: http://www.udini.de/index.php?option=com_gallery2&Itemid=117&g2_itemId=13612

  • elias

    Very cool post sonnie, really!! As stupid as it may sound i didn’t know what core meant… and this whole post makes frightening sense to me, see i do Capoeira too , and this sport demands a lot of back strength…and since i started this and climbing at the same time(i love doing both of’em, impossible to just choose one) i’ve experienced some strange and very fucking painful at the lower back and hip area…i’ve been to a therapist a couple of times and a lot of rest has been necessary, but i feel like i can’t give a 100% into both sports anymore. Please show us how to do thos exercises,c’mon!!! Thanks for sharing your wise stuff. Carpe Diem. Elias

  • Sonnie

    Sa-weeet, hey thanks for sharing everyone, Dave great links and stuff, very interesting. I’ll post some of the workouts I’ve learned soon, but until then try Ana Forrest, she’s a yogi who’s very well known for her core strength exercises. We pretty much copy whatever she does, but add a few subtract a few. I can feel the changes. Hope you enjoy it.

  • Danny

    I walked around the entire day yesterday trying to “engage” my core by having cold water thoughts….

  • Sonnie


  • Very nice post, took me a while to read though, for some reason I had a hard time reading past the picture of the poor woman suffering from anterior pelvic tilt…
    The core is a great find, can change the focus of all the workouts.

    Of a similar importance (and also overlooked) is the multifidus group (which is actually labeled in your anatomical picture)! These are small muscles connecting segments of the spine. They go from 1-2, 1-3, 1-4 segments. Awesome little muscles. They are used mainly for balance, keeping posture and so on. The thing is that people believe that the big muscle groups are the important ones for everything, including posture and balance, which is totally wrong! Standing on a slackline, for example, engages multifidus (and trains the core too), doing tree-pose engages multifidus (then close your eyes and you’re really engaging it). If multifidus doesn’t work then the spine becomes super sensitive to muscular imbalances amongst the large muscle groups… leading to slipped discs.
    Examples of exercises for both multifidus and the core: NEARLY ANYTHING. That’s why we are learning that they are so important, because those are our base groups. That’s the thing, it’s not so much which exercises use them its making sure you don’t not use them.
    Examples: Bicep curls or lat pull-downs or bench presses or … you name it really, but do them while kneeling or sitting or lying on one of those large yoga/exercise balls, or incorporate a slackline, or on one foot. Something unstable that gets the body to fine-tune and stop relying on the superficial groups.
    The machines are the gyms are made so that you don’t get injured and sue them! So they immobilize your spine. You sit against a hard surface, or lie on the bench… Or, and this is one of the worst, you put a belt around your waist – at which point your body learns to keep the spine safe by pushing out against the belt instead of strengthening its own belt: the core. (p.s. belts are great for “one-time” uses). Most gym exercises actually teach multifidus and the core to disengage!

    So start engaging them!! Have fun! And thanks again Sonnie for getting this out to the climbing community!!

  • intrinzic

    Very nice post indeed, Bruno! I knew there was a reason it felt so awkward to bench press a measly 25lb on the stability ball. And let’s not even talk about my attempts to shoulder press while kneeling on the ball, or kneel on it period!

    Anyways, here’s a little exercise that helped me find these muscles. See the arrows in the 2nd to last picture? Basically, we want to reverse the direction of the arrows – the goal is to develop a “posterior pelvic tilt” – in contrast to the anterior tilt displayed in the image.

    Find a hard floor and lay on your back and fully extend your legs, arms relaxed at your sides. Your lower back is arched in it’s natural position, and probably not in contact with the floor. Your glutes may have engaged here – relax them – can you feel the bony area around the top of your butt-crack touching the floor, maybe a little uncomfortably? That’s OK – hopefully the next movements will alleviate that!

    Those next movements are where we reverse the direction of those arrows. Imagine a steel bar through your hips – check out the 2nd to last image, where the dot is – your lower abs/lower back on one side, and your pelvis on the other. Press your lower back & abs into the ground, and draw your pelvis towards the ceiling, rotating around that imaginary steel bar. The pelvic movement will be minimal compared to that of your lower abdomen. Now your entire back should now be in contact with the ground. Squeeze, then relax your glutes – keep ’em relaxed – theres a different muscle “in” there that’s drawing your pelvis towards the ceiling.

    You might also try it with your knees bent (say, 45 degrees), soles of feet flat on the floor. Same as above, pressing your lower back/abdomen into the floor. This is a great position for finding “feel”, and isolating all those different individual muscles in the area. Try sucking your belly-button to the floor (is this the transverse abdominus at work?) versus simply squeezing the “6-pack” abs. Squeeze the muscle that stops the flow when peeing (google : kegel exercises). Practice that minute motion of drawing the pelvis to the ceiling, without engaging the glutes. **** Combining these will give you a “bandha”, or body lock, which I believe is referred to as an engaged core. ****

    Once you get the feeling, start bringing it into your everyday activities, walking running climbing etc. Anytime i’m in a chair – driving, in class, wherever – I focus on pressing my lower back into the surface.
    But it’s A LOT easier to cultivate that feeling on the ground, where you can really feel the lower & upper back in one straight line.

    **** This statement above may not be accurate – maybe someone who is friends with a yoga instructor will ask them to add some insight. ****

    WOW that was incredibly difficult to translate thoughts and actions into these words. I have so much respect for people who can communicate these things with ease. Here’s a video youtube recommended for me while I was writing this (how’d they know?!?) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0BLxSY2L3Y

    I hope some of you find some of this helpful!


  • KoolMikeP

    It’s “psoas” and “corset.” Great post! Thank you. The comment about gym belts, also great. Keep it up!


    Mike P.

  • Ben

    Great post! I’ve been fighting the very same back pain recently, and I’m willing to try out most anything to straighten it out. It’s a struggle to get off the couch, much less tie in or pull on the climbing shoes. Thanks for the info, all.

  • Kai Ewert

    The exercises developed by yoga teacher Ana Forrest are incredibly challenging and effective. On her site (http://www.forrestyoga.com/) she has a PDF of an old Yoga Journal article describing all these exercises. You’ll get much more out of them if you find a yoga teacher who actually teaches them, though, in part because initially its hard to locate the muscles and actions and because the exercises are just so hard at first! Her CDs/DVDs may work too, I just haven’t checked those out.

  • Kai Ewert
  • Suzanne

    I had a hard time getting past those abs. Are those really yours Sonnie, or did you steal that picture from another site? In any case, very ahhh ummmm! Yum. ha ha.

    I swear by osteopaths myself over a chiropractor, mainly as I like the massage that goes with it along with the clicking manipulation of getting your back into alignment, shame there are none in Canada however, and why ever not????

  • Suzanne

    One more important point with regard to your back:

    Watch how you lift, they were very strict on all this in my job back in the UK and it was policy to not lift more than e.g. a pound of sugar, any more than that and you are already putting strain on your backs. The education on this was drilled into us every year. Shocking facts, but true.

    Lift from bending down first at the waist, and use your legs more to lift the weight keeping the load close to your body, and then stand up straight.

    Any thing too heavy should be lifted by more than just one person, or by use of equipment to lift it instead.

    If you lift by bending over, the more you do this the more pressure you put on your backs, and each time it makes your back weaker, until one day ‘Bang!’ your back is put out, and permanent damage results, putting you out of work, along with many other lifestyle limitations along with it.

  • Sonnie,

    Don’t know if you’ll see this reply so late after the original blog, but here’s an interesting NYTimes article on abs/core/back related work. It seems to contradict some of the stuff we’ve been reading.