Stop Tightening Your Abs!

Outdoor fitness group doing lunges

If you’ve taken a fitness class lately, scanned the most recent fitness magazine, or watched the newest workout video posted to YouTube, you have undoubtedly been informed that you need to stabilize your core or engage your abdominal muscles while working out.

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 there is no doubt that you’ve heard those (or a variation of those), I’m here to warn you that you might not want to believe everything you’re told.

While the term “core strength” has been a buzzword 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. But, 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.

I’m sure that when you think “core,” you think abdominals. You almost definitely think about the “six-pack” abs, and you might think about your oblique muscles, but I’m sure you don’t think about anything other than those. However, did you know that your core stretches from your toes all the way up to your skull? Yes, that’s right, it’s a full-body chain. Take a look at this:


Notice the blue shading? That’s one continuous line of fascia (a connective tissue) and muscles that runs from the skull all the way down to the foot. Yes it includes your abdominal muscles, but it includes so much more than that. Known as “The Superficial Front Line,” it actually attaches to your toes and your jawbone. In light of that information, hopefully you’re starting to think of your “core” in a different light.

Most health professionals run into trouble when thinking of your core as just the abdominal muscles. The muscle that most of them are targeting when telling you to tighten your abs is the transverse abdominis, otherwise known as the TVA. It is shown in the picture below and runs like a weight-belt around your waist.

medically accurate muscle illustration of the transversus abdominis

However, did you know that the TVA should only be used when 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 while working out, 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? Well, 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 the guy wires more taut, when you tighten your abs you’re actually performing a moving-in motion.

The end result? 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. And, because of the superficial fascia lines running from head to toe, the effects of instability aren’t just felt in your lumbopelvic region. No, unfortunately, the entire body becomes unstable.

If you really want to impact your core, focus on the entire kinetic chain. 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. You know that tightening your biceps the entire time wouldn’t make any sense and those muscles would fatigue. But if you wouldn’t continuously tighten your biceps, why are you doing it with your abdominals?

And, just to prove the point: How many of you have your abs tight right now?

How did I know your abs were tight? And, why on Earth were they 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?