Everyone is talking about core stability these days. Many of my female clients come to me wanting to get rid of their “pooch,” the part of their stomach that sticks out below the belly button.
They think that countless crunches and sucking in their belly will give them a strong core and the sculpted look they desire. But they don’t realize the potential damage being done to their spines and posture.
What they are actually doing is destabilizing themselves by moving too much at the lower back and neck, putting themselves at risk for injury.
Much of the general public still believes that “sucking in” or “hollowing out” the belly is the correct way to achieve a strong stable core and protect the spine. This action isolates the transverse abdominus, the “waist cincher” muscle that wraps around the torso and interlocks with the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle that lies at the base of the rib cage and functions in respiration.
When we suck in our bellies, we are only activating the transverse abdominus. The chest tends to lift, and the ribs flare outward, throwing off the function of the diaphragm and the timing of core-muscle activation.
When this happens, other muscles like the obliques become inhibited (shut down), and the muscles of the neck and chest, which are already working overtime for most people, are further facilitated (or overactive).
As a fitness professional, I have realized over the years that it is vitally important to change how people think about the core, to help them understand how to train it.
If we want to exercise and move our bodies efficiently in space, we need to have a core that is reactive and contracts quickly enough to stabilize us.
A reactive core cannot be achieved by performing countless crunches. Yes, crunches will train our six-pack muscles (the rectus abdominus), but this muscle is not a part of our inner unit of core muscles, which are the group of deep muscles that are responsible for stabilizing the spine and pelvis.
For true core strength, we need to use our inner unit of core muscles in a concerted way throughout the entire lower torso, without overusing muscles in the neck.
The following sequence will help you learn to engage your true core muscles.
Step 1: Crocodile Breathing
In an ideal contraction of the diaphragm, the entire muscle pushes down into the abdominal cavity. This contraction should expand the lower rib cage and the abdominal wall in all directions.
Without a proper diaphragm contraction, the intra-abdominal pressure created during the breathing process will not reach all the way down to the lower back to create the stabilization needed for movement and to support the spine to prevent it from collapsing.
To assess the functioning of your diaphragm, you can hold your fingers around your lower rib cage and waist to feel if there is lateral (side-to-side) expansion and posterior (back) expansion. You should be able to send pressure into your hands.
Many people have trouble properly activating the diaphragm. If this is the case for you, I recommend getting help from a practitioner who is certified in postural restoration or a Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS) practitioner.
Step 2: Abdominal Brace
The next step is to learn the “abdominal brace.”
Rather than “hollowing out” your belly by pulling your navel to your low back, try making your abdominal wall stiff as if you were getting ready for someone to punch you in the gut. You can also try coughing or laughing. Even imagining you’re constipated works.
According to Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo and expert on spinal rehabilitation, this action will not only engage the transverse abdominus (waist-cincher muscle), but will also activate the internal and external obliques (muscles responsible for rotation and resisting rotation of the torso), which will provide much more stability than just the transverse abdominus alone.
Notice that when you use abdominal bracing, your ribs should pull down toward your pubic bone, rather than pull up toward your neck.
To get better at this, you can add resistance by blowing up balloons. This may sound silly, but it will help your motor control system learn the brace. You will feel your whole abdominal wall activate as you pull your ribs down to exhale air through the balloon. Try to inflate the balloon as much as possible by expelling as much air as you can.
Step 3: Breathing Freely
For optimal spinal stability and back health, the next step is to learn to breathe freely by maintaining your abdominal brace.
This may take some time and patience, especially if you have been consciously or unconsciously (yes you can say that because once it becomes habit, it becomes more automatic) practicing the “hollowing” technique.
Once you are comfortable with the abdominal brace, practice maintaining the brace throughout the whole breath cycle. At first, you may feel like you cannot get enough air in, so sending the air into the side and back of your ribs will allow you to feel like you can still inhale.
Maintaining the brace while breathing freely will get easier as you develop more movement in your thoracic spine (upper-middle back) and ribcage.
Step 4: Challenge
The next step is to improve endurance by maintaining the brace while moving your arms and legs.
A good exercise for this is the DNS dead bug.
Lie on the floor with your head toward a wall. Bring your arms overhead and press your hands into the wall. Your ribs may pop out off the floor, so make sure to pull them back down. You should feel the back of the ribs on the floor throughout the whole exercise.
Inhale to pressurize your abdomen and bring your legs up to table top (hips and knees at 90 degrees).
Maintain the brace and breathe while you continue to press the hands into the wall. Then stretch one leg slightly away from the torso. Bring the leg back into table top and switch sides continuously. Do as many as you can do well.
Step 5: Integrate
After you are comfortable with Steps 1–4, it is time to transition from proper abdominal activation into more dynamic exercises where the core must react to various forces. Planks and bird dogs are a reasonable progression, followed by chops and lifts and Pallof presses.
Of course, the way to progress and the choice of exercises depends upon your individual needs, but these simple exercises should help provide you with a good foundation for movement.
You will find that by having a core that activates more readily, all other aspects of your exercise program will become easier. You may also start to notice that your mid-section is firmer and more defined as a result of true core stability.
Ashley Whitson is an ACE-certified personal trainer, Pilates-certified instructor, pre- and postnatal exercise specialist, Functional Movement Systems professional, Neurokinetic Therapy practitioner, and professional dancer in New York. For more information, see AshleyWhitsonPersonalTrainerNYC.com