The word core has been very popular for quite a while now in the health, fitness and rehab worlds, but there isn't really a true agreement as to what it actually means; it really depends on who you talk to. If you ask physiotherapists, most will focus on the deep, subtle, picky muscles like your transverse abdominus. If you ask strength and conditioning coaches, most will strive to build bracing stability using the obliques. If you ask a Pilates instructor, most will focus on breathing and dissociation of movement. Finally if you ask a lay person, most will just pat their stomach and say 'I know I need to work on my core,' without really knowing why.
You can watch the associated video at the end of this article.
So who's right and who's wrong? The answer is you should be able to selectively use your body for whatever task you ask it to do. The picky little muscles should work subconsciously while you stand, sit, walk and breathe. The bracing muscles should work when you pick up or push something heavy and you should be able to bend, twist and stretch if you choose. The people that are wrong are the ones that think their method is the only and best thing for everyone. Typically the personal trainers need to be introduced to the Pilates instructors and the Pilates instructors need to do some personal training. Most people have a need to work on something, but it is a misconception that building more strength and stability is always the best option.
Some people are naturally strong and stiff as a board while others are loose jointed with low muscle tone. The first and best thing you can do for yourself before you attempt to do more of anything physically is to learn about your body type and learn what type of exercise would give you the most benefit. You may think yoga will make you looser or weight training will make you stronger, but they may also make you tighter or more sore.
The first thing to understand about your muscles is that they are all in a big tug-of-war with each other. Some muscles are built to work together while others are built to pull against each other; overly contracting some muscle groups can and will inhibit other muscles from working properly. The best way to start correcting your posture and building core control is to learn what muscles you are overusing and try to figure out how to turn them off. It is harder to learn how to stop doing something you have done for years than it is to learn something new, but this is how strength becomes a skill. You need to learn how to efficiently harness the strength and muscles you have by using the muscles that are supposed to work together and dampening down the ones that fight against them. You can work for years to strengthen a specific muscle, but you won't get it any stronger until you learn to functionally use it with the rest of your body.
Your abdominals are a prime example. Everybody has an upper and lower body, but most people have trouble making them cooperate with each other; this is where your abs play a big role. To generalize, your back muscles work together with your thigh muscles and your abdominals work together with your butt and hamstrings. It is easy to use your back and thighs, but it requires skill to recruit your abs and glutes so the tendency of most people is to get strong and tight in their back and thighs and weak and inhibited in their glutes and abs. Your abs connect the front of your ribcage to the front of your pelvis, while your back muscles do the opposite; they will lift your chest up and tip your torso backwards. Unfortunately this is the strategy most people will use to try and stand up straight with what they feel is "good posture." The result just makes them lean backward and inhibits the abs and glutes while compressing the low back. The goal of posture and proper spine loading is to vertically elongate the spine and stack it in a neutral position, not to lift the chest up as much as possible. Movements that pull the lower ribs up and away from the front of the pelvis stretch and inhibit the abdominals from working properly.
Click here to watch Everything your mother taught you about posture is WRONG
The missing link to most people's idea of posture and core control is the internal support the diaphragm plays in stabilizing the torso. Your diaphragm is two big half domes that sit inside the lower part of your ribcage and help you breathe. It helps support the weight of your torso off your low back and helps prevent you from tipping backwards when you try to stand up straight. Think of it as a mediator between the tug-of-war that is happening between you back muscles and your abs; the diaphragm helps put your trunk in a position so that your abs can and will fire to stabilize the trunk. When it is not working well, the tendency is to overuse the back muscles to stabilize which leads to stiffness and compression in the spine.
The diaphragm is two big muscular domes inside your lower trunk.
Imagine opening a small umbrella inside your ribcage
Our bodies are primarily built to deal with gravity in the vertically erect position. When an imbalance starts to develop in your gut + butt and back + thighs parings, your torso will start to relatively lean backwards; where exactly it leans from will depend on the rest of your joints, but inevitably people develop a head forward posture and will overly brace with their shoulders, butt or thighs. I believe if it took you A, B, C to get where you are today, then you should trace your path back through C, B, A to figure out how to do it all properly. In other words, learn where you are bracing and try to stop it, then try to figure out how to achieve a vertically stacked position, then try to use muscles in that position. You will find that if you figure out how to vertically stack everything, the picky, deep stabilizing muscles that physios teach you will just turn on by themselves and you will realize that there are a whole bunch of muscles in your body you just weren't using before. This is why it is important to spend most of your time training your core when you are on your feet and vertical, not horizontal on the floor.
Sometimes people are so subconsciously committed to their current posture and movement patterns that trying to change them is too overwhelming and seems impossible; this is when lying down and trying to isolate muscle groups and working on dissociation of movement and breathing is important. The people that need this most are usually the type A personalities that grip and brace everything. They would most benefit from yoga and pilates but would probably hate doing it and instead opt for a personal trainer to whip them into shape. The mellow, body attuned people with dance backgrounds love lying on the floor and doing stretchy, bending exercises and hate the whole gym scene, but they need to get out of Pilates and learn how to develop some strength and power to lift, push and pull things.
The essence of developing core strength and stability is learning how to coordinate your upper and lower body to work together in a way that promotes strength, balance and free movement. Some people may need to start with physio, some Pilates and others a gym program, but the fundamentals of movement are the same for everyone, you just have to figure out what works for you. The video playlist for Low Backs is a good place to start.