The Abdominal Brace
‘Brace your abs’, ‘Lock on your core’, ‘Switch on your core’. These are all popular phrases used in group exercises classes and by personal trainers. It is often the short cut cue to remind you of activating your muscles in your torso, but is it really effective and appropriate to do this every time you do an exercise?
The answer is no. Your muscles are elastic and designed to contract, relax and stretch. When muscles in the abdominal area are contracted during movement, it is actually hard to move the body. This ‘stiffness’ can be necessary for specific activities, but for the most part, the torso needs to be free to move to allow the arms and legs to move freely. Try it as it is an interesting experiment. Tighten the muscles in the torso and try to walk around normally. It actually feels silly as the whole body feels stiff and less mobile. Another way to think about it is to imagine walking around with tight fists, or tense muscles in the thighs. Your movements become robotic and lack the natural fluidity of normal biomechanics.
What can result due to ineffective use of these muscles is that the spine can be compromised because muscles are not relaxing or stretching when required and compression can occur in the intervertebral discs, particularly in the lumbar spine. The exact opposite of what your trainer intended.
So what is it that your trainer is really trying to coach you?
An engagement of your deep abdominal muscles, pelvic floor with natural comfortable breathing and a relaxation of these muscles at the end of each movement pattern. An example would be something like a bicep curl, where these muscles engage as the weight is lifted to the shoulders and then relaxed as the weight is lowered to back to the starting position. Posture is imperative - natural neutral curve in the spine, shoulders relaxed down with the crown of the head lifted to the ceiling.
So the next time you are thinking of pulling in your belly button to your spine, or bracing through your core, consider the more effective option of lifting your pelvic floor, gently drawing in your lower abdominals (across the hip bones) and breathing naturally. You will not only strengthen your core but also avoid potential injury related issues in the future and of course, protect your pelvic floor.
Written by Marietta Mehanni, Pelvic Floor First ambassador