Does a weak core cause low back pain?
It’s understandable to question if your core muscles may be contributing to your chronic back discomfort. But it’s important to understand that there are a variety of causes of low back pain. Therefore, it’s crucial to investigate other explanations before making any judgments. However, there is strong evidence that chronic lower back discomfort is associated with weak core muscles.
A strong core is essential for fluid human movement. One of the main consequences of insufficient core strength is low back discomfort. As such, those who are feeling this discomfort are frequently recommended to perform activities that strengthen the core, such as planks or crunches.
But does a weak core cause lower back pain? Or do these exercises help relieve pain because they give you stronger abdominal muscles and better posture?
The answer is that both are true! A weak core can lead to lower back pain, but strengthening your core will help alleviate the symptoms in some cases. In this blog post, we’ll discuss how a weak or unbalanced core could be causing your discomfort, how strengthening your core can lead to better posture, less pain and easier movement.
Chances are you have heard of ‘core’; you may have been told to engage it, though that yours was weak, or even that it is related to the injury or pain that you are in. But what actually is your core and why do people talk about it so much?
What exactly is your core?
The term “core” has become a catch-all buzzword that is frequently used without a clear knowledge of what it means and how each component is activated. Despite what many people think, the term “core” refers to a set of muscles that work together to stabilise the body, especially in the areas of the low back, pelvis, and abdomen. It does not only refer to the muscles found in the belly.
Your core actually consists of four different muscles. These muscles all work together to stabilise your body, particularly around your low back, pelvis, and abdomen. Learning how to effectively activate these muscles and then strengthen them is important in creating a stable base for your body to work with.
Let’s look a little closer at those four muscles.
1. Thoracic (Breathing) Diaphragm:
- Location: Beneath the rib cage
- Dysfunction signs: Upper chest breathing, restricted rib cage movement, or pain
- Remedies: Practice belly breathing techniques
2. Pelvic Floor:
- Location: At the base of the pelvis
- Dysfunction signs: Urinary or fecal incontinence, pelvic pain
- Exercises: Practice ‘lift and hold’ exercises to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles
3. Transversus Abdominis:
- Location: Runs horizontally around the abdomen like a belt
- Dysfunction signs: Low back pain, pelvic pain
- Recommended exercises: Engage in spinal and pelvic stability exercises, such as bent knee fallouts
- Location: Deep back muscle between each spinal vertebra
- Dysfunction signs: Low back pain, back pain
- Recommended exercises: Perform 4-point kneeling exercises (featured by Ashlea below)
So, the core is made up of so much more than just abdominals. It also includes your lower back, pelvis and hips. So when people talk about a strong or weak core they are often referring to how tight these muscles can contract or whether certain muscles might be overused while others aren’t used enough. Strength in one part of the body may affect something else downstream- for example, if you have really good hip strength but weaker abdominal muscle tone it might cause low back pain because there is less support from those muscles that surround the spine.
Can your core actually become weak?
Yes, your core muscles can become weak from a variety of things- not just aging or the lack of use are some reasons why you might have a weaker core. For example, if you’ve had an injury to the area that caused pain for weeks and months at a time it’s likely those muscles became very sore so they lost strength during this period. If you’re recovering from surgery on your abdomen then it may be difficult to work in exercises because movement is limited but again these restrictions could contribute to the weakening of your supportive abdominal muscles. And during pregnancy, the core muscles become stretched and weakened which can lead to chronic low back pain in women.
Does a weak core cause back pain?
Back pain can be caused by many different things.
If you have a weak core, that might be one of the contributors to your back pain. Your abdominals help support and stabilize your spine so if they’re weakened or not as strong then it can lead to an increased risk for low back pain.
Back pain doesn’t have just one cause, so it is important to seek out the help of a trained professional who can diagnoses what is causing your back pain. Plenty of people think that they have a weak core and try core strengthening exercises and it just makes their pain worse.
Just as a weak core can cause low back pain, so can a core that is too rigid. When your core becomes too rigid, the muscles are not as free to move and can lead to back pain.
It’s important for you to do a variety of stretches that will strengthen your abdominals in different ways while still being gentle on your spine.
Signs of Poor Core Strength
If you experience any of the following symptoms you may have poor core stability:
- Back pain
- Trouble making it to the toilet in time
- Reduced Sports Performance:
- Weak stomach muscles
- Poor balance
- A “collapsing” technique eg running or landing
- Slower times
- Less power
- Increased injuries, aches and pains around the body especially hip knee and shoulder
How to test your core strength at home?
There is one simple test that you can do that can indicate whether your core is weak or not.
The boat hold is a great test for your core strength. You should be able to hold this pose for at least 30 seconds AND KEEP BREATHING – Do not hold your breath. If you have to hold your breath it means your diaphragm muscle is having work too hard instead of your pelvic floor and the other core muscles.
What are 2 of the best beginner exercises to strengthen your core for low back pain?
Here are Ashlea’s two favourite core exercises to work all parts of your core!
Kneeling swim/bird-dog: a great way to challenge core stability from the 4-point position
Chest lift: will challenge the whole abdominal wall, and stability and strength of the core is important to good form
So why is your core important?
There is a lot of study going into core strength and how a lack thereof may be related to different injuries or issues such as low back pain, hip pain, pelvic pain. It may cause other muscles to overwork to stabilise your centre and joints to become incorrectly loaded which can cause pain and discomfort. Whether it is running, going to the gym, playing a sport, or even just normal daily activities, having a strong core creates a solid foundation for the rest of your body to work and move more effectively.
It is important to note that while people may engage their core muscles in day-to-day life without even knowing, having some awareness of how to consciously and effectively activate these muscles is where a professional comes in. Our osteopaths and physiotherapists can assess how you activate your core and correct or teach you the right technique, and even some exercises to strengthen it!
Why is Pilates the best if you have a weak core and back pain?
Enhanced Core Strength: The unique capacity of Pilates to target and develop the core muscles is well known. It targets the muscles in the belly, lower back, and pelvis with a sequence of precise motions and exercises. This targeted method produces a discernible increase in core strength, supporting the spine and lowering the chance of strain and pain.
Encourages Optimal Posture: Bad posture is frequently caused by a weak core, which makes back discomfort worse. Postural awareness and alignment play a major role in Pilates. Pilates works on the muscles that are involved in keeping an erect posture, which helps people create better alignment habits. This thereby promotes a more pleasant and pain-free experience by reducing needless strain on the spine.
Enhanced Muscle Flexibility: The goals of Pilates exercises are to increase the flexibility and strength of the muscles. This dual emphasis guarantees both strength and suppleness in the muscles. Strength and flexibility work together to prevent muscular imbalances, which are known to aggravate back discomfort. Pilates aids in lengthening and relieving tension in the muscles that surround the spine by combining regulated movements with dynamic stretching.
Controlled Body Movement: The focus on precise and controlled motions is essential to Pilates practise. During every exercise, practitioners of this discipline are encouraged to move with intention and engage their core. Coordination and stability are enhanced as a result of this increased knowledge of body mechanics. Consequently, the muscles in the neck, shoulders, and other areas are free to perform at their best without being overworked.
Is Pilates safe for people with back pain?
Pilates is considered a safe and beneficial exercise regimen for those dealing with back pain, especially when practiced under the guidance of a certified clinical Pilates instructor, such as a trained physiotherapist or osteopath. These professionals possess specialised expertise in both back pain management and the nuances of Pilates exercises, ensuring a tailored and safe approach.
While ongoing research is underway, current evidence strongly suggests that Pilates can offer significant relief for individuals struggling with lower back pain, regardless of whether core weakness is a contributing factor. Engaging in regular Pilates sessions has been associated with a range of positive outcomes, including improved posture, enhanced muscle tone, refined balance, and increased joint mobility. Furthermore, Pilates has demonstrated its effectiveness in alleviating stress and tension, contributing to an overall sense of well-being and comfort.
What are the risks of Pilates for people with back pain?
The risks of engaging in Pilates when dealing with back pain can vary depending on the type of Pilates regimen chosen. There is a spectrum of Pilates styles, ranging from gentle at-home routines to more intense High-Intensity Training (HIT) sessions utilising reformers. It is crucial to have a conversation with both your healthcare provider and your Pilates instructor to determine the most suitable approach for your specific circumstances.
What is the most frequently encountered risk when practicing Pilates? It’s important to note that any potential risks will be unique to each individual. Therefore, it is advisable to consult with a qualified physiotherapist or osteopath before embarking on any exercise programme, especially if you are currently experiencing back pain. For those without pain who simply aim to enhance their strength, it is recommended to begin at a manageable pace and gradually progress while attentively listening to your body’s signals.
How to get started with clinical Pilates?
Clinical Pilates offers a personalised approach to enhancing strength, flexibility, and overall wellness. To get started, consider our Exclusive Package, which includes an initial consultation and private session, typically valued at $270, now available for $59 (with insurance) or $99 (without). Please note that this offer is limited to the first five new clients.
During your initial consultation, our experienced team will take the time to understand your goals and guide you through simple exercises to assess your current capabilities. The subsequent one-on-one session will be tailored to your specific needs, whether you’re focusing on pain relief, building strength, or improving balance. Taking this step can lead to a healthier, more resilient you.