Monday, May 01, 2006

Confessions from the Core

Hi. My name is Tracy. I’m a recovering physical therapist. I used to teach people to draw in their lower abs; then I keyed in on the transverse abdominis. But now I know “core strength” is all about motor control, context, gravity and being upright. This is my story.

In 1995, I was accepted into Washington University Program in Physical Therapy, the number one program in the country at the time. I studied with some very bright, wonderful people. I took classes from and worked for Shirley Sahrmann. (She’s a great person and one of the sharpest people I’ve ever met. Her ideas continue to influence my practice every day.) I knew the lower ab progression like nobody’s business. I thought I knew it all. Then I graduated and went out into the real world.

Derrick Crass, (a PT and an ‘84 and ’88 Olympian) gave me the opportunity to put my Wash U smarty-pants self to work. I must’ve driven him crazy with my arrogant attitude. He persevered in spite of me. He even sent me to this guy Vern Gambetta’s seminar “Building and Rebuilding the Complete Athlete” in 1998. I came back eyes wide open, newly enthused and engaged in my work. We bought bands; we crossed over and touched; we lunged and reached. But I still taught people to draw in their lower abs; yet I felt something wasn’t right about my whole back/core treatment paradigm. Why wasn’t I simply teaching people to move better while keeping their torso stable? To perceive their lumbo-pelvic position while they were doing their work or sport movements? To achieve necessary lower extremity flexibility with torso stability? Why was I doing supine ab progressions and still doing straight leg sit ups?

Slowly my thoughts developed into a framework about “core strength and back training” and I was given the opportunity to write my ideas down for Harvey Newton and the now defunct online version of Strength and Health. These articles were well received. But they needed revision; that whole transverse abdominis thing was still lurking in the shadows. (You can check one of these articles out on my website:

Then Stuart McGill appeared. Here was someone speaking out against accepted practice—going against the tide. And he even collected data to back up his statements. Maybe I was on the right path—the functional path—after all.

So I am still recovering—working on and revising my thoughts about how best to educate my clients and patients on back health. I’ve found a support community in the blogosphere with Vern, Joe P. and GoAnimal. It has been a long road and one that puts me at odds with many of my fellow physical therapists. But that’s okay. I press, I squat, I lunge and I brace for action. Gravity, dumbbells, barbells, med balls and bodyweight are my partners in the journey of human movement and performance. I marvel at the complexity of the human body and do not attempt to reduce it to specific muscle groups; I focus on body awareness, alignment, movement (mobility) and then strength. The body is kept in the context of its environment.

Slowly but surely my revised thoughts on the core and back are being put into written form again for the world to critique. The public release of this work will be a true hallmark of my recovery.

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