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Should You Keep Your Core Tight?

Does keeping your core tight help balance?

I was working with a client the other day and asked to see their single leg balance.

They did one side fine, swapped to the other side where they wobbled.

As they fought to remain upright,  they exclaimed how

 “no matter how hard I tighten my core, its really hard to balance on this leg”

So, should we brace our core?

If so, when and for what?

The “tighten the core” phrase is a bit of a hangover from the “functional training” craze of the early noughties.

And then as Pilates grew in popularity and seemed to be every physio’s preferred recommendation, core strength just became a thing.

And like all things, the initial idea may be good, the intentions may be pure, but as the information moves further and further from its source, there’s the inevitable “chinese whispers” effect where the message gets diluted or  corrupted or both.

I personally view core tightness as a “Squat Rack Rule”

Squat Rack Rules are rules and guidelines that are true, even necessary in the squat rack, that is to say during heavy lifting, but untrue out in the world.

So ideas like bracing, core tightness, valsalva maneuvre, chest up, shoulder blades back and down, knees out and so on, perfect when you’ve a bar on your back.

Useless if you’re running, climbing, throwing, doing human stuff.

In the real world, where all the fun stuff happens, muscles work reflexively.

I often ask people who come into me for Assessments if they think about tightening their core as they jump up to catch a ball, or as they sprint away from their opposition on the pitch, or as they slip a punch.

The answer is always no. They don’t think about muscles at all, they simply move to achieve the task and the body sorts itself out.

An easy example of the self organising nature of the body is to simply lean to the point you lose balance. If you freeze at the moment you catch yourself, or if you have a video recording you can play back slowly, you will notice that your foot steps and lands directly underneath your head.

I’ve grabbed people and demonstrated this hundreds of times at workshops over the years. Usually without telling the person what to expect.

Your body knows more about moving well than your poor intellectual, conscious mind will ever be able to understand. And even if you could understand, there’s no way you could organise 200+ bones with however many articulating joints in between them, controlled by 600+ named muscles in the fraction of a second it takes to step, never mind also while tracking the motion of an external body (punch / ball / oncoming vehicle).

Consciously contracting and controlling tension in the body is only possible at slow speeds, ie in the squat rack.

So what about balance?

Several years ago at one of the Anatomy in Motion events with Gary Ward and Chris Sritharan. Gary had his force plate with him and invited us all to stand on it for a minute or two to track how our centre of mass moves while standing still.

And move it did. All over the place.

Gary then did a comparative test. He had someone stand while holding their core tight, then repeated the test with them standing as relaxed as possible.

Which do you think showed more movement?

If you said the tight reading, you’d be right.

Their centre of mass moved to a far greater extent than their relaxed reading.


To answer why, I like to think back to the Chi Gung and Chinese Martial Arts training I’ve had. We are trained to relax as much as possible into a stance or position, to let as much muscular tension go as possible. In doing so, or at least in theory, this means the muscles are ready to contract.

A tight muscle has already contracted, it’s going to struggle to contract more. I relaxed muscle, well that can fully contract, the tight muscle has to first relax before it can work.

So if you're core is held tight, it may be preventing movement in the spine, keeping the pelvis and rib cage in some sort of alignment, but it’s also reduced it’s ability to make subtle micro adjustments. Now that spine and rib cage, all that mass, moves as a single unit, it can’t bend and flex. It’s a solid oak block, rather than a flexible willow. It’s a solid box rather than a wicker basket

When performing big lifts, Squats, Deadlifts etc, then yes, you want that solid box. But when running, when returning that serve in tennis, you need to be the wicker basket, flexible and strong in a variety of shapes.

So should we practise core tightness?

Yes, we absolutely should. We need strength from our toes to our fingertips, from the soles of our feet to the top of our heads. So we need tension to build strength.

But if it was just about strength, you’d expect powerlifters to be the most athletic people alive, after all, they’re the strongest. Yet, no Olympic medalist looks like a powerlifter, or a bodybuilder.

We see Olympic sprinters on the start line bending and twisting their spines to stay lose before the event. Mobility is the word we use to define potential for movement. We must practise mobility as we build strength and muscle lest we become “muscle bound”

Once again, I will point you towards the “100 rep warm ups” for examples of mobility sequences you can utilise before, after or even instead of strength training:

And here’s a playlist of assorted mobility drills you can explore and pick as you wish:

Final thought…

If muscular tension is used to reduce movement in one or more joints, does that not mean that movement has to be shunted out to other joints?

If this why the “tight core brigade” often have shoulder, hip and knee issues even as their back is never as solid as they’d like to think it?

Conscious muscular contraction is a squat rack rule.

Don’t make it a default real life rule.

We’re reflexive by nature

Explore what that might mean to you.


Dave Hedges

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