Unconscious Competence, Your Spine, and Your Fascia

What does the term unconscious competence mean when it comes to your body? This means you automatically, without thinking use your body well in all your daily activities whether that is doing exercise, housework or sitting at your computer. When this blog idea hit me, I was specifically thinking about tensioning the core during tasks that require effort. Unfortunately, I have had to teach way too many people how to properly tension their core.

The Unfortunate History of Teaching Core Tensioning

If you are over 40 and attended exercise classes or worked with a trainer in your younger years, you were probably taught to tighten your core and protect your spine by tucking your pelvis and sucking your belly button. Unfortunately, in some exercise classes and therapy settings this is still taught. I meet clients all the time that were taught this, even by therapists and unlearning it can be a challenge.

This is me wondering why was that ever something that was taught to anyone, ever. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. And I will go toe to toe with anyone who wants to fight me on this. Well, I will not engage in a physical battle, but I’d be open to a coffee and a polite exchange of ideas. I may switch into my old higher education lecture mode with lots of demonstrations and active learning, but I’ll do my best to keep my cool, as my dad would say.

The Flow of Learning and Unlearning

The idea of competence is often used in education and in the workplace. When I taught at Creighton University, we were expected to bring the students from a place of incompetence in the field of occupational therapy to a place of competence. When they arrive to the program, they are in the upper left corner of the chart below or unconscious incompetence. At this point they know enough about occupational therapy to know it is what they want to do for their career, but they don’t know what they don’t know. They are often overwhelmed by all that they are expected to learn. At that point they move into conscious incompetence, and they start studying and practicing their skills.

One of the skills I taught in the program was therapeutically transferring patients from a wheelchair to a chair, bed or toilet. Many of our students worked in places as nursing assistants or technicians in long term care centers or hospitals and had experience with patient transfers. They often came into the class feeling they “got this” and could even help me teach the labs. Unfortunately, these were often the students who struggled the most. Why? They had a lot of unlearning to do. There is a big difference between moving someone from point A to point B and therapeutically teaching someone with a new stroke the detailed steps of being able to safely do as much as they can while the therapist (student in this case) holds back and only does what the patient cannot all the while keeping them safe in the process. All the students had to pass a rigorous practicum to demonstrate their conscious competence before being allowed to head off to their clinicals and work with real therapists and real patients in real hospitals.

The Problem of Unconscious Competence and Teaching

Once the students are at their clinical sites and paired with a therapist there is so much more to learn. The students must take their conscious competence and apply it in real life situations. The therapists expected to train these students have often been therapists for so long they have become unconsciously competent. This is a good thing! They are highly skilled and efficient at their jobs. They see what they do as easy because the skills just flow from them. This causes two problems. The therapist struggles breaking down the skill or activity into components the student can understand, and they don’t always understand why the student can’t do something that is so easy for them, and they get frustrated. The point here is that a good teacher cannot just tell the student what to do but work to explain how to do it in a way the student can understand. Fortunately, the university has faculty to coach the clinicians in their teaching skills when needed so everyone usually ends up happy.

How does this apply to core tensioning?

When the average person attends an exercise or movement class or attends a personal training or therapy session, you probably at some point will hear the instructor tell you to “engage your core”. But what does this really mean? The instructor probably does it with unconscious competence. They may or may not know how to break it down to teach everyone how to do it. In a class setting they probably can’t tell if everyone is doing it right or not depending on the class size. This can apply to any activity happening in a class and not just core work.

In my work with clients, I regularly see them doing “exercise” the wrong way. Either they had no instruction and just jumped in, or they had instruction from someone who was not properly informed. It might be how they hold their shoulders in a plank or how they do the bird dog exercise but often it is how they engage their core. There are obvious problems when you are not tensioning your core correctly during an exercise class such as you are more likely to injure your back which no one wants! But this translates to everyday life and can be an even bigger problem!

Core Tensioning and Everyday Life

If you are not properly tensioning your core during exercise, there is a good chance you are not properly or spontaneously tensioning your core during everyday activities. Have you ever or know someone who has “thrown their back out” while reaching for something in the shower or doing some other mundane activity? When we move to reach for something our core should spontaneously tension. Not fully like we’re doing a sit up (please don’t do sit ups) but just enough to protect the spine. The just right tension to match the activity.

You should be spontaneously tensioning your core just enough to protect your spine when you lift your Amazon package off your front porch, open a heavy door, pull your car door closed, put away dishes, lift a skillet, pull up your socks, etc. The amount of tension needed for each of the tasks is a little different. Ideally your body would spontaneously stiffen just enough any time you use your limbs. If you’ve been taught to tension your core the wrong way, your body is probably confused, and your spine is unprotected. When your spine is unprotected, it will move more than it is designed to meaning more range of motion and more often. This can cause inflammation and many other back issues.

How to Properly Tension Your Core

According to world renowned expert Stuart McGill author of The Back Mechanic, to properly tension the core, you must maintain the shape of the spine while contracting the muscles around it. I was able to hear Dr. McGill speak live at the Fascia Research Congress in Montreal in September of 2022. There he described the process of using the muscles like a blood pressure cuff around the spine. The stiffening of the muscles around the spine in its normal curves is what protects it. Make a note here. The muscles around the spine and not just the muscles on the front of the body.

In his book he expresses similar sentiments about teaching people to flatten their backs to protect it. I will quote from his book, and it is in bold for emphasis.

This deliberate effort to disrupt the spine from its neutral position and “straighten” one of its natural curves is not healthy and blatantly simulates many individuals’ mechanism of injury.

McGill, Stuart. Back Mechanic (p. 34). Backfitpro Inc. Kindle Edition.

If you have back pain, you can benefit from reading this book. Or, come see me. I pretty much have it memorized. If you do you will notice that his book does not include information about fascia. It was amazing to hear him speak at the Fascia Research Congress and say he wish he knew about fascia earlier in his career. He retired a few years ago. He talked about how the research on fascia is filling in the blanks and helping us understand movement by filling in the gaps most models of movement so clearly have.

This is me tensioning my core.

I press my fingers into my relaxed tissues as in the top picture. In the bottom picture I’m using my muscles to push my fingers out. This requires me to contract the muscles in the front and back.

Try this. Use your hands by putting one hand on either side of your waist with the fingers in the front and the thumbs in the back. Now contract your muscles just enough to push your fingers and thumbs out. You should still be able to breathe with your diaphragm as you hold the contraction.

Now I’ll provide you with some very clear examples that I hope will finally convince you to NOT FLATTEN YOUR LOW BACK CURVE during anything effortful whether that be work, exercise, long held positions in standing or sitting or simply opening a door. I have been learning about and teaching ergonomics for 30 years. NEVER has any ergonomist EVER told a person lifting a box in a factory (or anything anywhere) to “Please sir, flatten your low back curve before you bend over to lift that box”. NO! That is the exact opposite of what we teach to protect the spine. NEVER has any ergonomist EVER told a desk worker “Please miss, tuck your tailbone during your shift.” NEVER has any ergonomist EVER told a chef “Please madam, tuck your tailbone and flatten your low back and for extra support, please suck in your belly button while you stand at the counter for ten hours per day.” Why oh why then would we instruct people to do this during exercise to protect their spines?!?

Please sir, tuck your tailbone, suck in your belly and flatten your back while you complete that report to protect your spine. NO!!!

Dr. McGill says that people will often feel relief from back pain when the flatten the curve because this stimulates stretch receptors. However, over time the movement of flattening the spine will often make the symptoms worse.

What About Cat Cow?

Some of you may be thinking but Amy, you often do cat/cow in the yoga and movement classes you teach. Yes. The spine should be flexible so it can tolerate some movement in all directions. It should bend, flex and twist and preserving those movements keep our spine healthy and better able to support us during all kinds of movements. Those movements also help to wring out the tissues around the spine to keep them healthy, strong and flexible.

What you will also notice in my classes that I’m constantly cueing to keep the low back curve in place. Why? I’m trying to create competent body use and movement. Hopefully over time the wonderful people who attend my classes (I’m so grateful for you!) will develop UNCONSCIOUS COMPETENCE and protect their spines naturally and spontaneously.

Unconscious Competence and Fascia

Your fascia molds itself to the positions you choose most. If you have been taught that tucking your pelvis to flatten your spine is protective to your back and you do this regularly, your fascia will adapt and begin to hold you in the position permanently. The result is that the position begins to feel normal to your brain and your body. For many people this position is OK, until it is not. It may be a straw the broke the camel’s back situation where it just started to hurt one day, or it may be a situation where you needed good back strength and support such as lifting a heavy bag of groceries out of the car.

For the low back fascia to be healthy it needs to move. Ideally your whole body needs to move because the fascia is a whole-body system. Your whole-body posture needs to be on target for your fascia to be healthy. My goal with my clients and for those in the classes I teach, is to develop unconscious competence not just with tensioning the core during exercise but with the whole body. I want that unconscious competence to translate to movement outside of the exercise space and into life so we can do the activities we love and need to do every day easily and without pain. THAT is what is truly important.

If you want to work more on your posture, join me March 12, 2023 for an in-person posture workshop. We’ll bust posture myths and get you in the know about what will get your posture on track and supporting your quality of life.

Or, check out my on-demand course. Posture, Fascia and Your Health.

Thanks for reading!


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