Building Your Physical Foundation: Core

For many years, I didn’t actually know what “Core” is. I knew it had something to do with torso and stability, and I knew it was was important — people were always telling me that I needed to use it — but I had no specifics. For years I would just squeeze everything from my shoulders to my hips and think that I had a good strong core. Not so! Finally, I got some private lessons from various professionals and began to understand how effective use of your core makes all movement more efficient and healthier. With a strong core, you support your limbs and allow them to move freely from a powerful foundation. In the coming week, I’ll be posting some swordplay-specific exercises, but before those get posted, I suggest that you look at your core to make sure that your body, your “machine”, is working with optimum mechanics. If you don’t, you’re looking at wasted energy and perhaps injury.

Strengthening your core is less about doing a hundred sit-ups a day, and more to do with ensuring that the numerous elements are working together effectively. Here’s an article by Paul Chek to explain: Figure 4 is one of the images that helped me to understand the function of this muscle group.

In order to understand your core and then improve your alignment and strength, you’ll need to do some specific exercises. However, googling images and searching YouTube for exercises won’t be useful unless you have a sense of your own body. We are all built a little differently and your machine, your instrument, will have variations from that of the person beside you … unless you’re standing beside your body-double. Because of this, simply watching someone else do an exercises isn’t always the way to self-improvement. In my opinion, it is well worth your time and money to invest in private coaching so that you can receive adjustments from an outside eye. Learn the specifics of your instrument and shed some detrimental habits.

Any personal trainer can help you with your core, but the obvious choice is privates lessons in Pilates. A qualified Pilates instructor will guide you through movements that may seem strange, but may very well introduce you to muscles and actions that you didn’t know you had. Next on my list is the Chek System. It puts such an excellent focus on functional mobility and I think it’s worth your while to look for a qualified practitioner near you: In addition, Paul Chek’s book How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy! has excellent exercises for building your functional core, along with a variety of fantastic information for a healthy body. Other great systems for core work include Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais and yoga.

Personal story: I’m a huge fan of Moksha Yoga. I’ve been practicing for about 3 years now, and it has done amazing things for my alignment and endurance. The teaching style includes copious adjustments with verbal cues and physical adjustments (you can always request no physical adjustments, if you prefer). The focus is on listening to your body and working at a level that is available to you. Instructors are always happy to answer questions. Also, this focus on stability, alignment and working within one’s own range of motion –as opposed to competing with your neighbou and trying to overstretch– means that practicing yoga has been instrumental in injury prevention through strengthening my joints and improving my alignment.

You may be thinking, “I’m spending so much on the workshop, I don’t want to spend more on private lessons”, but perhaps think of it this way: you’re already spending a lot on the workshop, so spend a little bit more to ensure that you’re getting the most out of your investment. Plus, a healthy body (and mind, for that matter) is probably one of your most valuable “possessions”.

From an audience perspective, a strong stable core that supports movement reads as highly capable. Overly tight and “gripping” reads as tense. Loose or poorly structured reads as weak. Either extreme, tight or loose, reads as a lack of competence. Something in the audience’s sub-conscious sees the weak core and they’ll have trouble “buying” you as a trained fighter, even if they don’t know why they think that. With a strong core, they’ll shout “Captain, my Captain!” without hesitation.

Remember, a strong core doesn’t mean ribbed abs. It means that your biomechanics are efficient: your structure is well-aligned and your limbs move seemingly effortlessly from a stable and responsive torso. You, the actor, must start with good biomechanics, so that you can then choose where to place inefficiencies for the best storytelling options. Like a Formula 1 driver knows her car, like a cabinet-maker knows every kind of saw, nail and glue under the sun, know your instrument so that you can move with ease and make choices to craft each moment of your character’s story.

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