Everyone wants a strong core…but what does that mean?
Six-pack abs? A flat stomach? The ability to do 100 sit-ups?
Usually when people want a strong core what they are really saying is that they want their core to function better. This means less pain and the ability to do more things with their bodies.
The foundation of your core strength is your reflexive strength. And you can’t build it with traditional ab exercises.
It is the strength that you developed as a baby which was the foundation of your original movements.
Learn below what it is, how you lost it, and how getting it back can improve your life.
There are multiple types of strength from a fitness perspective. Most people understand maximal strength, the most weight you can move, for example, a one-rep max. And most people understand endurance strength, how many times you can do something, for example, how far you can run.
But one type of strength that we forget about is our reflexive strength.
In simple terms, reflexive strength is your ability to react without thinking.
“Reflexive strength is the body’s ability to anticipate and respond to movement before it happens and as it happens. It is the foundation for all mobility and strength designed to be expressed through human movement. Reflexive strength is both predictive strength and reactive strength. It is stabilizing strength and strength for movement in all planes of motion. It is the strength that removes limits from the human body. It is the foundation for the original strength you were born to have.” (1)
The best way to understand this is to stand up. Unless you are very injured or recently suffered a stroke, you probably didn’t have to think too much about what you are doing (if you did, it is a sign that you have lost tons of reflexive strength). Standing on two legs is much more complicated than you realize. Which is why so few animals do it. The base of support is so small that your subconscious postural muscles have to make tons of fine postural adjustments that have to happen faster than you can think.
A more extreme example is catching a ball. You don’t know where it will be until it starts moving. Then you have to predict its path and move your limb into a position where it can grasp hold of it, which you only have an instant to do before the ball bounces out of your hand.
So as you now understand reflexive strength is pretty important. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to catch anything or stand. Which means most other physical activity is off the table too. Unfortunately, we can lose a lot of our reflexive stability. This doesn’t mean that we can’t find ways to stand, or walk or run or jump or catch after we start losing our reflexive strength. One of the beautiful features of the human body is its ability to find ways to get a task down. Even if you can’t do something the most optimal way you can usually find another way to get it done.
Which works. Until it doesn’t. This usually means injury, loss of strength or loss of flexibility. Fortunately (or unfortunately) our modern lifestyles don’t demand a large amount of any of those. If you maintain the ability to sit up in bed, stand up from sitting at chair height, and walk for about 5 minutes continuously you have the physical capabilities to survive in the developed world in 2019. But do you have the capabilities to thrive?
How did you lose your reflexive strength?
The short answer is by not using your body the way it was designed to be used.
The long answer is that you were designed to move almost all day long. Think about what your life would be like without the invention of the engine. This means no cars, trucks, airplanes or trains. How much more would you walk? The internal combustion engine was invented in 1876.(2) Until it became widespread, everyone walked everywhere unless they rode a bicycle or horse (or other animal), or sailed a boat. If you don’t think sailing or horseback riding are exercises take a few lessons and get back to me (and remember they are both Olympic sports)!
Or take other modern conveniences. Like indoor plumbing. How many more steps in your day would you take if you had to go to the outhouse instead of to your bathroom? And when you wanted to drink water or take a bath, the water had to come from somewhere.
And don’t get me started with how much work it is to hunt and gather all your food. Especially when you can’t put your leftovers in the refrigerator.
For most people, we can trace the loss of our natural reflexive strength to the start of our education. Even though learning to read and write is done most effectively by forcing children to sit down and pay attention, it is a very unnatural thing to do to a developing organism.
When you started sitting down instead of moving (read: playing) all day, your reflexive strength stopped being used. And like most things you either use it or lose it.
So what replaces it? Movement patterns run by larger force-generating muscles. You developed these after your reflexive strength. So when you start losing your natural reflexive strength these muscles start doing double duty. This makes them get tight and you exhausted. This can also cause injury and lessen your enjoyment of movement.
Where did your reflexive strength come from in the beginning?
From the original movement template hardwired into your nervous system. We don’t exactly understand how you inherit the blueprint, but it is a pretty safe bet that it is there.
How do we know? Because almost everyone does close to the same movements in close to the same order to learn how to move. Regardless of location, culture, language, or even seeing an example.
To illustrate, take a baby who is an only child, and doesn’t go to daycare. Even if the adults in their life only walk and never demonstrate how to roll, rock or crawl, the baby starts moving by moving its heads and then progresses to rolling, rocking, crawling, standing and eventually walking. This happens the same way as it does with a baby who sees other babies who they could have “learned” from.
Think about how different this is than language. You have to hear someone speaking a language and imitate it. If you are not exposed to the language you will never learn it. But with moving the steps to succeed seem to be already inside of us. We know the movements and we do them naturally.
How do you get back your reflexive strength?
The same way you developed it in the first place. The same exercises (movements) that you did as a child still work!
The most important reflexive strength exercise is belly breathing (using a muscle called your diaphragm).
It is important to remember that breathing is a muscular movement. The way to breathe that will increase your strength, improve your flexibility, and decrease your stress level is belly breathing.
Your other option is chest breathing. While there are some specific times that it is the best strategy, if you always breathe with your chest muscles, you will get weak, lose flexibility and be constantly stressed. Can you live like this? Yes, but why would you want to?
Notice that babies in general always engage in belly breathing (when they are not screaming).
You can practice it too. When working with clients, I generally start by having them lay on the ground, where they can relax more because they don’t have to support their spine. Once laying on your back, put one hand on the chest and one hand on the belly. Breathe and move the hand on your belly (with your belly) and keep the hand on the chest still.
There are many variations and progressions in all diaphragmatic breathing exercises, but that is the general idea.
The second way that you build your reflexive strength is through activating your vestibular system.
Your vestibular system is your “balance system.” It is located in your inner ear and is connected to every muscle on your body, and in particular your abdominals and back (your core muscles).
Since it is inside your head and is connected to all the other muscles of your body, having it function well will help all the muscles of your body work more effectively. We do this by activating it.
The most basic way to activate this is to practice looking as far as you can side to side (so far side to side that you are actually looking behind yourself but switching direction) and up and down. This simple movement that you see infants do all the time is really a powerful reflexive strength training exercise.
The third pillar of developing reflexive strength is moving things on the opposite side of our bodies together (called contra-lateral movement) and movements that cross the midline.
The reason for this is it helps activate your brain in unique ways. Something that we often don’t think about is all movement is driven by your central nervous system. That means your brain and your spinal cord. Contra-lateral movement and midline crossing both activate the brain and can improve our reflexive strength.
The most natural way to do this is walking. Your right arm goes forward at the same time your left leg goes forward. It is that simple. But you can also exaggerate this effect by doing something like marching and touching your right hand to your left knee and then vice versa.
All the ways of restoring your reflexive strength are far too long for one article. Everything you have ever seen an infant do probably counts as well as countless exercises that have been developed based on these movements.
As a general rule, the methods always fall into one of 5 categories:
1 - Diaphragmatic breathing
2 - Head control
3 - Rocking
4 - Rolling
5 - Crawling (one version is exactly how babies crawl)
If you do all of these every day you will be moving better and in less pain in no time.
For a more in-depth look at how to rebuild your reflexive strength, I recommend Original Strength, a system that was designed to maximize the effectiveness of these movements on our health and fitness.
You can also send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) with any additional questions that you have.
1 - The Foundations Manual part 1 - Tim Anderson and Geoff Neupert
2 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internal_combustion_engine