Swords, Grappling and Activating Your ‘Core’

Stiffness at just the right time …

Okay, I admit it. I was a Transversus Abdominis Fanboy (TAF) for a while there. I was won over by the world of Australian Physiotherapy. I was taken in by the fitness industry and convinced by the evidence base. I was not just a TAF (see above), I was a TAJ, a junky. All of those people have great things to say but they weren’t saying all that needed to be said.

You have to understand, learning to activate TA (some people call it TrA, but that takes too much effort to type) was a significant part of my recovery. It was a pivotal part of getting rid of one type of lower abdominal pain and more miraculously, it was instrumental in getting function back in my shoulder. Yes, my shoulder. Who would have thought?

I got to the point where I couldn’t use a sword anymore. No more swinging a blade, even a smallsword was painful to use. Incapacitated is the word, I think. Forget punching, pushups, cutting or thrusting. Forget opening the door for a complete stranger or turning the steering wheel in my car. The age of shoulder based chivalry was gone for me.

The physiotherapist I was referred to worked wonders with elite athlete shoulders, and after hearing about my right hip labral arthroscopy, she put two and two together (I think it equalled roughly 75) and started me on the most gentle, subtle and effective treatment plan I’d been given to date.

She taught me the phrase concerning Pilates, “It hurts your brain more than your body”. I learnt to draw in my pelvic floor muscles, ever so gently, then to do that in an upright position, then to do it sitting while gently activating my lower traps, rhomboids and lats. I learnt to add in the internal obliques. I learnt to do it while squatting and retracting my pectoral girdle with my back against a wall — being told that I was only allowed to gently activate my TA and internal obliques. While squatting. What?

It worked. It really worked wonders. Literally within a week, I had improved my shoulder function considerably and decreased my pain noticeably (I could zip up my jeans without pain in my shoulder!). So I bought into the propaganda. I chose sides in the war against lumbo-pelvic-hip dysfunction. I drew a line in the sand, a really thin line, running from one inguinal ligament to the other, and bisected by the white line of the six pack (which was conveniently hidden below a layer fat, what with being shy and all).

I started experimenting on myself and my clients. I became an amazing practitioner (okay, so the rosy glasses of history may be tinting my story a bit). Seriously, though, I was able to get results with people in the lumbar region that eluded other practitioners. There was so much to learn, though.

“It hurts your brain more than your body”

Here’s the thing I didn’t realise. It was always difficult for people to learn. I had the toughest tradies come to my classes, men with arms the size of pylons and necks the width of the Empire State Building. And always, it would be the same. The simplest Pilates exercise would have them shaking on the ground, brow furrowed with all the effort required to slide the heel away from the body. Without moving the pelvis. Or over activating the superficial abs. Or flexing the thoracic spine.

I began to see a pattern, a fairly simple pattern. Whenever someone needed to learn a new motor program, there was an immense amount of mental effort required. I mean immense. Concentration levels rose through the roof and Antarctica shrank a little with the effort of each repetition. It happened with TA activation and it happened with rhomboids activation. Or serratus anterior. Or gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. But it wasn’t always the same pattern of effort in every person.

The pattern I saw was that learning a new motor program demanded a truckload of neural effort.

I suspect now that the effect that activating TA had on my shoulder mechanics was less about TA being activated and more about my brain getting a sharper image of the region. Butler and Mosely talk about this in their Explain Pain material (here and here are a good start), so I won’t go into more detail with it now. Except to say that when we put an immense amount of mental focus, or attention, into something, we give it greater meaning and make stronger connections to it. The body’s perception of that region is changed because it looks at it more closely. And then it can realise something beautiful, wonderful and profound.

“Now that I’ve looked at this region more closely,” the brain meta-thinks, “I see that it no longer poses a threat, and what we know about the brain is that once it no longer perceives a threat from a body region, it has no need to warn us of an impending doom. How does it warn us of said impending doom? By sending out a discomfort or pain signal. And so for me, pain diminished and then stopped.

Other things happened here. The brain’s perception of the region sharpened up, so that it recognised the shoulder as being a safe haven of movement. Also, the higher centres of movement planning and execution began recruiting more motor units. They also began activating those motor units in a more efficient sequence, to get the best movement out of the region. All of these occurred because of the difficult, new movements and the amount of mental effort I put into doing them well. And all along the brain felt less threatened.

A message from our sponsor about motor unit recruitment.

A motor unit is the nerve and all the muscle fibres that it controls (supplies). A motor unit can supply a few muscle fibres or many. In the case of the fingers, a motor unit will supply only a few muscle fibres to allow for finer movements (strum the guitar, plait the hair, scratch that). In a larger muscle such as the thigh, a motor unit will supply up to thousands of muscle fibres. They don’t require fine control, just big control (kick this, stomp on that, jump over it).

What we know about learning new movements is that in the first six weeks, at least, the new gains in strength or coordination are mostly the brain learning how to control all the motor units in the most timely sequence (there are some soft tissue growths happening but not a lot). One of the biggest arts of this process is learning not so much to switch the muscle fibres on as to switch the right muscle fibres off at the right time.

Did you get that?

To activate and then switch off the right muscle fibres at the right time is the biggest challenge of motor learning.

Anecdotal evidence that we all can relate to? Think of the first time you learnt a new skill. I can think of the many students I have seen beginning sword swinging — I think of myself. It’s all tight shoulders up around the ears, elbows stiff, torso rigid, face contorted, and breath being held. Slowly, over time, that changes and the body allows itself to relax a little more in the movement. The brain gets a clear picture of how to move and develops a smoother, more relaxed look and feel. It realises that keeping all of those muscles tight all of the time is an immense amount of effort. Wasted effort.

Back to my TA journey. I still think it’s an immensely important muscle but I don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s the most important muscle. I have stopped seeing people as a recipe book — if I want to bake cookies, I have to put in certain amounts of flour; if I want to reduce pain in the lumbar region, I have to activate a certain muscle. No, it’s not about one muscle. TA no longer has pride of place in my selection of solutions. I still think TA is an immensely important muscle. I just think it has the same immense importance as all the other muscles in that or any other region.

When we learn a new movement pattern, the body must relearn how to activate all of the muscles in the region. So when I reestablished motor control in my shoulder and abdominal region, I had to learn to activate TA, and the internal obliques and the external obliques and the rectus femoris muscles.

And the muscles of the back. No, I’m not talking about multifidus and rotatores (have look at its line of pull and do the maths!) — get that out of your head! I’m talking about retraining the movements of the spine efficiently … so all the paraspinal muscles, QL, hip flexors, abs, lats, even the rhomboids.

I had to learn to use all of them well and in sequence. I still am learning. What a never ending journey it is!

The final words on it all

So where does all this go as far as our own training is concerned?

In recent years I have come across professionals and volunteers alike teaching students to “activate their core” when training. An oft given instruction is to have your abs slightly switched on all the time (firstly, that’s not your core, secondly that will pull you into a flexed and inefficient starting posture, if not countered by appropriate upper extension).

Firstly, what’s the core? It’s every muscle that surrounds your spine, much as an apple core is a rounded cylinder. The apple core is not just one side of the cylinder, it is the whole cylinder. Likewise, the human core is not just the abdominal wall, it is every muscle surrounding the spine — front, sides and back.

Secondly, what do the abs do? They prevent your spine from rotating in multiple planes. They pull your spine into neutral alignment and hold it there. They generate rotation, flexion and extension. They protect your abdominal organs and spine. They transfer forces from the lower limbs/ground and out into your weapon arms by keeping the spine neutral in conjunction with all the other core muscles.

Thirdly, the core transfers forces. Didn’t we already say this? Yes. So it must be important. Listen. They transfer the ground reaction force of the feet in contact with the earth below and transfer that to wherever it needs to go. It’s very very basic physics. Or if you’re sitting, they transfer the force of your hips sitting on the chair; or if you’re lying down grappling, they take the force directly from the ground. They do this by creating an appropriate level of stiffness* around the spine and in the ribcage. Movement can’t come from anywhere except the least mobile, highest mass object … which in this case in the earth (F=ma, anyone?). This is indisputable.

*An appropriate level of stiffness. That just means the muscles are activated at the right time and then switched off at the right time. They are not designed to stay switched on all the time. If they are stiff at the wrong time, they will actually impede the flow of force. It’s physics and it’s physiology. It’s simple and it’s true.

If they are turned on all the time, then the length tension relationship is changed and the force they can generate is compromised. If they are switched on all the time, then they are using up precious metabolic energy and may become fatigued, thus being unable to transfer the right amount of force at the right time — or, and this one hurts, they may not be able to resist the rotational forces that come through the spine, thus causing spinal injury, whether through inadequate force production or force over-production, which can result in buckling, or lack of appropriate stiffness in the spine, causing injury (see Professor Stuart McGill for more of the numbers on this stuff).

No, our core muscles are not designed to be switched on all the time, just as TA is not the fix-all panacea practitioners would have you believe. We are best learning our skills base separate from our conditioning base. We are best to have dedicated times when we can solely train our core muscles (all the way around the spine!) to activate on and off well and in sequence, and then spend time focusing solely on the natural and beautiful movements of our chosen sport. And we need to have combat, free bouting times when we can simply move with our weapons in the chaotic fray, unhindered by the mental distraction of “activating the core” — for as we saw earlier on, learning a motor program is difficult, and the field of combat is no place for anything other than the unhindered freedom of what we’ve already learned. The rest will happen precisely when it does.

P.S. There is also a thing called peripheral stiffness, or stiffness through the limbs. Dr Mel Siff talked about this in his work. Therefore, it’s not just about central stiffness, it’s about stiffness wherever, whenever and for however long you need it. Also, there may be health and medical professionals who prescribe specific advice to individuals based on their assessments and histories and which differs from what I’ve said here. That’s okay. You do what they say. There’s a reason you’re paying them money and it has a lot to do with how much education and clinical wisdom they have. Here I just discuss the principles, theories and some research around training. Oh, and I’d love the conversation to continue below!