Restore Your Core The Connection Between a Weak Core & Back Pain: What You Need to Know

The Connection Between a Weak Core & Back Pain: What You Need to Know

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The Connection Between a Weak Core & Back Pain: What You Need to Know

By Lauren Ohayon 02/22/2024

4 Min Read

You’ve likely heard over and over again: strengthen your core to reduce back pain. But is back pain due to weak core muscles? I’m going to explore that question and provide you with some solid steps to take toward less back pain and a stronger core.

Can a weak core cause back pain?

Short answer: probably. And even if it isn’t the only cause of your back pain, strengthening the core may result in a decrease in pain. “Back pain” is a broad term applied to a number of different areas along the spine. The most common type of back pain is low back pain. Estimates of the prevalence of low back pain vary widely due to the nature of studies on the subject, but it’s reasonable to say that between about 40% and 70% of adults in the US and similar countries will at some point suffer from back pain. About 10-20% of adults have chronic low back pain. Low back pain can cause a number of problems ranging from decreased enjoyment to total disability in terms of everyday activities. The causes of back pain vary from acute injury to what is called “nonspecific” low back pain–the “no one knows why it hurts, but yes, your pain is real” kind of pain.

Here’s the good news: working on your weak core may help your back pain, not only through the mechanism of improving the strength of your core muscles but also by connecting you to your body through mindful movement.

What’s the core and how does it work?

Contrary to popular belief, the core is not just your “six-pack” muscles. Your core is an interconnected system of muscles and connective tissue surrounding your torso, and includes your diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles. The core is responsible for helping you do basically everything: in addition to helping stabilize your whole body as it moves through life, your core takes part in the respiratory process, and its ability to function well can affect digestion, elimination, and sexual activity. So it makes sense to think that back pain can also come from a weak core.

core muscles

As you can see from the image above, there are multiple layers to the core. A weak core is not just one muscle group that isn’t working well. More often than not, the problem is that the whole system doesn’t work together in a coordinated way, so that one group of muscles gets overused, while other muscles are underloaded.

Ideally, your core is responsive to load–it activates automatically in response to what you’re doing. Not all of the core muscles will need to engage for every movement. Our bodies need to be able to move and rest in a variety of ways in order to function well, and a weak core limits how many ways we can move. Try this: hold something like a laptop or a milk carton in your hand and reach your arm straight out in front of you. Then slowly raise your arm up. Do you feel a change in the way your core responds? What if you take your arm out to the side and slowly raise your arm there? This is what it means to have a responsive core.

How can a weak core lead to back pain?

Pain in our bodies is information. Sometimes that information is acute, like a stop sign–a broken bone is usually pretty loud. Sometimes it’s more like a yield sign–maybe you have a knee that’s always bothering you, but you’re not sure why. Acute pain is an indicator that you need to stop right now and examine what’s happening. A nagging knee pain might continue for a long time before you realize it’s keeping you from doing what you want.

When it comes to back pain, sometimes the signals are mixed and difficult to understand. Sometimes the signals are intensified by stress or circumstances. So understanding that there is more than just a physical component to pain can be helpful because it broadens our toolbox for managing and treating the pain itself. Working to develop a responsive core helps you learn to trust your body to support you, and this is both a mental and physical practice.

With that in mind, let’s look at the physical elements at play in approaching back pain from a weak core perspective. What are the problems created by a weak core?

Poor Postural Support

Good posture helps us move more easily and from a steadier base of support, with the natural curves of the spine working to support the weight of the head. Your posture isn’t just about your spine, however: it’s also about where your pelvis is in relation to the rest of your body. Your pelvis supports your internal organs and helps transfer force between your upper and lower body. If your pelvis tends to tilt forward excessively, you might find that your low back muscles are consistently shortened. Or if your pelvis tends to be tucked under, you may find that your back is rounded, or your butt seems to disappear. 

A weak core inhibits the body’s ability to make postural support automatic. In a fascinating review of studies of how well adults maintain postural control while doing things like walking and talking at the same time, researchers found that the harder you’re focusing on something other than the movement itself, the less likely you are to be able to move from a place of stability and control. And the more likely you are to experience pain or injury. 

If you’ve ever noticed that your back hurts more when you’re walking around at a museum than when you’re going for a brisk walk around your neighborhood, you’ve seen this principle in action. If you have a weak core, this tendency will be even more pronounced. 

weak core back pain

Imbalanced Muscular Support

The core muscles ideally work in a coordinated manner with the breath, responding to the demands placed on your body without your needing to consciously tell them what to do. But if you have low back pain, your core and back muscles may not be firing responsively–in fact, many people with low back pain have measurable muscular imbalances. What this looks like varies from person to person–you slouch or you might have an overly rigid posture. It’s about how the muscles are functioning as a group.

The body will almost always choose the easiest way to perform a task, even if it’s not the most effective one. Think about getting something off a high shelf: how often do you attempt to reach it before choosing to go get a stool? Getting a stool first might be the most effective way to get that item down, but it’s not the simplest way. Likewise, if your core is weak, you might overuse your back muscles in an attempt to keep your body upright, since that will temporarily work. But overuse of those muscles may eventually cause pain.

How do I know whether I have a weak core?

Your core’s main job is to stabilize your body so that it feels supported through all the ways you move every day. A weak core can manifest in many different ways: a lack of ability to maintain an aligned posture, back pain, difficulty with balance or coordination, and pelvic floor issues are all potential symptoms of a weak core.

What can I do about back pain from a weak core?

The first thing to know is that exercise is a great way to alleviate back pain. First, you should check in with a medical provider to ensure that there are no structural reasons why you might be in pain. Then learn how to engage your core effectively, ideally with a holistic approach (like I  teach in Restore your Core®) that has you doing more than isolating single muscle groups. 

Strengthening your core is about more than just building strong muscles: it’s about creating new pathways for movement in your body. It’s about having more options available to your body when it comes to everything: sitting, standing, and more. When your body knows more options are available, you’re able to adapt better to whatever you’re doing. Walking in a museum? Your body can choose more than one position to rest in while looking at that Van Gogh painting.

Let’s ask that question again: can a weak core cause back pain?

Not all back pain comes from a weak core, but a strong core can alleviate back pain. A strong core will help you:

  • Move better every day
  • Find more ease in bending, reaching, lifting
  • Have more choices about what kinds of activities you engage in
  • Feel like you can trust your body to support you

If your core is weak, you are not broken or a problem. You have the potential for growing stronger and finding more ease in your body.

Next Steps

For most people, beginning to do some mindful movement to strengthen their core is safe. However, if you have acute pain, a history of back injury, hypermobile joints (as in hEDS), or bone-related conditions like osteoporosis or spondylolisthesis, you should consult with a medical professional before beginning any core-strengthening program. It’s important to know what is an absolute contraindication for your body.

That being said, you can begin with something as simple as practicing a gentle, core-engaging breath. Take your time and be patient, but proactive. For many of our clients, getting specific feedback on how they’re already moving can be super helpful. You can reach out to a physical therapist in your area, or book an assessment with an RYC® trained professional online. 

Remember that being in your body is an ongoing journey. Life will throw all kinds of problems at you; your body will be your home for all of them. Give your body the love it needs.

FAQ

1. Can a weak core cause back pain?

Yes, it’s likely. While not always the sole cause, a weak core can contribute to back pain. Strengthening the core may alleviate back pain, not just by improving core muscle strength but also by fostering mindful movement and a better connection with your body.

2. How can a weak core lead to back pain?

A weak core can contribute to back pain through factors like poor postural support and imbalanced muscular activation. It inhibits the body’s ability to stabilize itself and respond appropriately to movement demands, leading to overuse of certain muscles and potential pain.

3. How do I know if I have a weak core?

Symptoms of a weak core can include difficulty maintaining posture, back pain, balance or coordination issues, and pelvic floor dysfunction. These conditions may indicate a lack of stability and support from the core muscles.

4. What can I do about back pain caused by a weak core?

Exercise, particularly core-strengthening exercises, can help alleviate back pain. However, it’s crucial to consult a medical professional, especially if you have a history of back injury or other underlying conditions. Strengthening the core is not just about building muscle strength but also about creating new movement patterns and options for the body.