Core strengthening appears to be a very abstract term in the world of physical therapy. To some, it means very specific motor control training. To others, it means planks. Several years ago, a proposed core stabilization clinical prediction rule was shown to lack validity. Regardless, due to the lack of established guidelines for core stability training, there will continue to be a variety of techniques, based on the clinician's preference.
When it comes to lumbar manipulation, there has been a significant amount of research to show our inability to manipulation a specific segment. Even when we try to "isolate" an area, movement can occur several segments above and below. It would appear the lack of specificity with manipulation is rather insignificant, so certain patients may just respond to manipulation in general. Can the same theory apply to stabilization? I recently read a study that compared specific motor control training in the lumbar spine to high-load deadlift training. The results showed that there was no difference in strength, pain intensity or muscle endurance between the two groups. The motor control group did have better motor control and activity, but the fact that pain, strength, and endurance were similar can help us in not needing to be so specific with our exercises. Sometimes, the particular instructions we give to our patients can actually cause a fear of movement, which is something we want to avoid.
Now, I am not necessarily saying there is no point to motor control training. I would simply argue that it's not as important as we used to think. If there is a subtle pelvic motion when reaching overhead, we don't necessarily need to be stopping the exercise altogether. It may still be beneficial to establish some general patterns of motion during earlier stages of rehab in order to prevent re-aggravation during high load training. Personally, following my manual treatment (if indicated), I will start with a couple mobility exercises to help get the spine moving. I then follow that up with some motor control training to prep for whatever movement I am going to have the patient perform. For example, if my patient will be doing a deadlift, I will prime them with a quad rock back and/or hip hinge, in order to help dissociate lumbar and hip motion with heavy lifting. My end-goal however, is to get my patient strengthening with heavier weight.
-Dr. Chris Fox, PT, DPT, OCS
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