Abdominal activation during exercise: stretching versus bracing

To draw or not to draw

When I started delving into the science behind “core” training over 10 years ago, the pull maneuver was the breakthrough. I first learned the technique from Paul Chek, who learned it from a group of physiotherapists in New Zealand.

The concept came from a book, Therapeutic Exercise for Segmental Stabilization of the Vertebral Column in Low Back Pain by Richardson et al, which was based on some exciting new research. The authors found that their physiotherapy patients with low back pain had time problems with their transverse abdominis. Tea transverse abdomen should be turned on before any movement of the body and found that in people with low back pain, the transverse abdomen it would be triggered after the movement had already occurred. The authors used specific exercises to restore the function of this muscle and their patients’ back pain improved.

Based on this information, people in the fitness industry, such as Paul Chek, began teaching the pull maneuver to improve transverse abdomen activation, as well as incorporating it into exercises like deadlifts and squats.

This was something new and exciting at the time. The fitness profession seized upon this information and it spread like crazy throughout the fitness world. Next thing you know, all the personal trainers, pilates instructors, yoga instructors, and aerobics class teachers were instructing all of their clients to “pull your tummy in toward your spine” when they exercised. I know because I was one of them.

Now let’s tackle whether or not you should draw. The answer is: No. And yes. This is what I mean:

Enter Stuart McGill

No, you should not pull your belly in toward your spine while exercising. Because? Well, the new school of thought on this subject, based on the latest research by Stuart McGill in his book Low back disorders, you should focus on contracting your abdominal muscles or getting your abs “tight” during the exercise. When you do this, you transverse abdominis is also activated.

According to McGill’s meticulous research, concentrating on pulling your belly button in toward your spine actually decreases spinal stability when doing exercises like deadlifts, squats, and overhead presses. That’s a ten dollar way of saying there’s less support from the abdominal muscles. It’s a bad idea to pull in your belly while exercising, especially with certain exercises and if you’re lifting heavy weights.

The abdominal “brace,” as McGill likes to call it, is the way to go for most exercises. Not only is it backed by solid research from one of the world’s leading spine specialists, but I have used it personally and with my clients. You can feel the added stability, especially when lifting heavy in exercises like deadlifts and squats. Plus, the abdominal bolster is also easier to do than the tummy pull. All you have to do is stand with good posture, inhale, and contract your abs while maintaining good postural alignment.

An exception to the rule

I follow Stuart McGill’s brace concept when strength training, but have found that many of my clients have benefited from transverse abdomen and pelvic floor isolation exercises. Many things can cause dysfunction with these muscles and I have found that many of my clients have trouble activating these muscles.

I have learned a lot from Diane Lee, an internationally renowned physical therapist for her clinical work on low back and pelvic pain and disability. After reading several of her articles and speaking with a physical therapist friend of mine who is a huge fan of her work, I have reintroduced motor control exercises for these muscles with great success. Many persistent problems that my clients and I were experiencing began to improve after adding several sets of these exercises to our routines.

Here are some of the important points I have learned through Diane Lee’s work:

  • Low back pain, surgery or injury to the abdominal area, and pregnancy can cause the transverse abdominis muscle to lose its function.
  • Without restoring proper transverse abdominis function through training, problems with this muscle can be present even after the pain or injury has subsided.
  • Pain in the pelvic area, trauma, labor, and surgery can cause this group of muscles to lose function.
  • Low back pain, pelvic pain, hip pain, and urinary incontinence can be caused by weak pelvic floor muscles.

In summary

  • Do not pull your belly button in toward your spine while doing strengthening exercises. Doing this destabilizes your spine and sets you up for injury.
  • Instead, wear braces that tighten your abs as you lift. Tighten them but make sure you can still breathe well. Doing this protects your spine by adding stability to your abdominal muscles.
  • Specific exercises for you transverse abdominis and the pelvic floor may be necessary in some situations; especially when someone has had injury/surgery or pain in the abdominal and pelvic region. There could also be a case for doing these exercises prophylactically.

I hope that clears up some of the controversy surrounding these two important techniques.

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