Pooping, Puking and Abdominal Bracing

If you’ve taken a fitness class lately, read the most recent fitness magazine, or watched the newest workout video posted to YouTube, I’m here to warn you that you might not want to believe everything you hear or read. How many of you have been told while working out that you need to tighten your abdominals or “brace” your core when performing a movement? I know I sure have.

Delivering a punch in a kickboxing class? Tighten your abdominals! Doing a downward dog in a yoga class? Stay strong in your belly! Dancing those pounds into oblivion with a Zumba video? Brace your core!

While the term “core strength” has been a buzz word in the fitness industry for a while now, I think it’s overused and grossly misinterpreted. I hear clients on a daily basis who think all of their symptoms will disappear if they simply strengthen their core. They believe their back pain, hip pain and shoulder pain are due to the simple fact that they’re weak. That’s not necessarily true. While I believe core strength is important, it’s not a panacea. Ultimately, you have to look at the position and posture of the body to find the true cause of one’s pain.

When working out, I’m sure some of you have been told to “stabilize with your transverse abdominis” (otherwise known as your TVA and shown in the picture on the left), which runs like a weight-belt around your waist. Did you know that the main job of the TVA is to aid in compressing the abdominal cavity? That’s right–the TVA is used for forceful pushing…a.k.a. pooping and puking! In addition, it helps women when birthing children. So unless you’re doing one of those three activities, you most likely aren’t activating your TVA like it’s designed to be used.

Think of guy-wires holding up an old-time circus tent. Those wires can only do their job when they’re pulled tight–pulled away from the center of the tent. When the tension is let off of those ropes, therefore allowing the ropes to move toward the tent, the whole tent falls, right? We can think of your TVA in the same way. When you are told to “suck and tuck” or brace your abdominals, there is a compression, an inward motion, that happens. Rather than pulling things more taut, when you tighten your abs you’re actually performing a sucking-in motion. While thinking that you’re stabilizing your abdominals, the reality of the situation is that that movement is having the opposite effect on your abdominal cavity. The guy-wires that are being asked to brace your spine have now become “slack,” just like the guy-wires of a circus tent. Remember, the TVA is a compression/inward-motion muscle, not a tension/outward-motion muscle. By “bracing” and compressing your TVA, you’re asking for the whole circus tent to come crashing down.

If you’re really wanting to impact your core, get your body balanced. The muscles of a balanced body know exactly when to work and when not to work. If you’re balanced, you won’t have to consciously think about tightening or bracing your abdominals. Think about it this way: If I asked you to keep your biceps muscles flexed throughout your entire workout, you’d look at me like I was crazy. If you wouldn’t continuously tighten your biceps, why are you doing it with your abdominals?

Let’s try something. Right this second, I want you to RELAX YOUR STOMACH.

How did I know your abs were tight? And, why on Earth were your abs tight to begin with? We have become so ingrained with the erroneous thinking that we need to tighten our core that most of us are doing it all the time without even thinking about it. Continue that trend, and your tent will come crashing down.

QUESTION: Did I catch you with your abdominals tight?