Centerworks Blog

Abdominal Bracing and Back Pain

abdominal bracingHave you been taught abdominal bracing exercises for back pain?  Are you aware of how you’re using your ab and back muscles?  Can you feel what’s happening in your core – in the front, in the back, along the sides?  Does your belly push outward, stay the same, or flatten when you think about stabilizing your center?

I’ve recently been asked why I want the low belly (and whole-belly) to flatten towards the spine to support the back. Some of my clients are realizing that this is NOT what they normally do, but until now have been in the habit of pushing the abs out when they engage their core.

After a quick google search – I have to say that I cannot agree with much of what I’m seeing posted on the benefits of abdominal bracing!  Or, the methods in which these other blog posts and videos are explaining it.  Keep in mind that I am not a doctor or physical therapist – but with a lifetime of my own personal lower back issues, more than 20 years teaching Pilates and helping people eliminate back pain, i am confident that my logic and methods are sound.  There’s a lot more to eliminating back pain than bracing, and bad bracing habits are only going to make your back feel worse, not better.

Here are a few reasons why poor abdominal bracing habits might be contributing to your back pain:

If you push the abdominals outward to “brace” it’s going to pull the lumbar spine forward (out of position) too.  This creates an excessive lumbar arch and the back muscles will tense up to keep you from going too far. This is NOT helping to stabilize a healthy back position!  The larger QL (Quadratus Lumborum) muscles are going to activate and try to work as stabilizers.  But the QL is designed to help you MOVE – to arch the back and side bend – not just support posture to hold you steady.  When this is how you’re holding for support, your brain is being trained to use a movement muscle as a stabilizer. As a result, what muscles are you going to use instead when you need to bend forward, sideways, or backwards?  You’ll end up playing tug-of-war and straining your back because the lower back won’t “let go” when it needs to!

Take walking for example: If both QL’s are busy “bracing” for support, you cannot unlevel the pelvis when you walk.  This unleveling action is what helps stretch and strengthen the back with every step. Walking should be working the Obliques, and when the body is working properly this allows the leg swing to swing freely from the hip like it’s supposed to.  There is also a component of spine rotation that should be happening to get the whole-body benefits of walking for a healthy stride – but if you’re practicing abdominal bracing all you can swing is your arms.  Abdominal bracing puts your back and pelvis on lock-down, resulting with a tiny stride and your back/core/everything that should be working to make walking an excellent healthy-back exercise isn’t doing its job.  The result of this mis-managed core support, your back gets weaker, and you end up experiencing more pain not less.

What about the actual back stabilizers?  The smaller Multifidus muscles are the back muscles that need to be working in opposition to the abs to help stabilize the back (and the Multifidi can work to hold you tall, arched, rounded, twisted, or in a side bend).  Also, the Multifidus muscles span the full length of the spine and are segmental – which means it’s possible to stabilize the lower back and have free movement of the ribcage and upper back, or vise versa. Stabilize the upper spine, move the hips/pelvis, and low back, or use the Multifidi to stabilize the full length of the spine.  (Your QL muscle are only in the low back – there is no way tensing up this muscle is going to help you support healthy movement!)  Do you know how to find, and use your Multifidi?

Why better posture matters for eliminating back pain

If you’ve been told to do back “exercises” but nobody’s looked at your posture habits – or shown you how to start improving your posture – can you see how the back exercises you’ve been given may not fix the underlying problems?  If your posture and body alignment are off, your body is by default – out of balance.  Because of this, it will be nearly impossible to find and use the right muscles for your “back-care” exercises.  They might be great exercises, but if you can’t do them right because of posture or muscle imbalances, you’re not going to reap the benefits.  The body is great at “cheating!”  It will always find a way to do the work, without actually doing the work when the right muscles aren’t strong enough to get the job done.

When the body fears that the low back is in trouble because it’s over-arched, the abs aren’t strong enough to pull in effectively, and the QL won’t let go to help shift the spine into a safer, more functional position… the Glutes start grabbing and typically people end up “tucking” the pelvis to try and take the stress out of the lower back.

But what this does is pull the pelvis even farther out of a functional position, locks up the hips, and starts shifting the lumbar curve up into the mid back, creating more stress, and ultimately, additional upper back, neck, and shoulder problems. The abdominals continue to get weaker and the arms and shoulders take over. What should be “low center” support, has shifted to “high center.”  It’s impossible to maintain a healthy back without proper posture, the correct pelvis position, and the right muscles in-balance to support you.

Following Bad Cues Won’t Keep Your Back Healthy

If you’ve been told to pull your “navel to spine” you’re missing out on most of the muscle support that needs to be activated to protect your back. This one-point of support is more likely creating a bigger divide between the upper and lower halves of your body. There’s a good chance that because of this, you’ve got a habit of using your hip flexors instead of your abs to shore things up! This jams your pelvis, spine, and ribs together creating compression for support instead of finding support with length and strength. When the hip flexors grab, and the pelvis gets pulled towards the ribs, there is not enough space for the abs to pull inward! The bad habit of popping the abs outward, and the Quadratus Lumborum and other back extensor muscles overworking, gets reinforced.

Body awareness, and a better understanding of how to find and use the right muscles, matters if you want to really get the right support to eliminate back pain.

It’s important to learn how to correct the relationship between the pelvis and the ribcage so that the spine is in optimal alignment; then properly activating the sequence of support through the whole length of your torso (and keep the length) while you contract the deep core muscles for back support. This involves pelvic floor, transverse abs, obliques, multifidus, proper breathing habits, and better spine alignment!

Bracing by tensing everything up like you’re going to get punched in the gut might be useful if everything you need to do with your body involves zero movement. But if you’re going to walk, be active, use your arms & shoulders, legs & hips, and spine to bend in any direction, you’re going to have to learn how find and feel different layers of muscle support to work and release when needed depending on the movement or activity.

Change for better habits won’t happen overnight, but it can improve quickly once you know what you’re doing!

Tuck vs. Scoop vs. Neutral/Functional Pelvis
If you always tuck your pelvis to do abdominal strengthening exercises, you are not most effectively training your body to feel better. Sometimes the hips need to scoop when the abs work, and sometimes we need to maintain more of a “neutral/functional Pelvis” and still engage the core. Knowing when your muscles need to contract and hold everything still to stabilize vs. contract to move your body, is vital information for developing healthy movement habits to keep your back safe. Learn the difference between tucking, scooping, and stabilizing a functional pelvis for a healthy spine.

Check your Curves: Lay on your back with straight legs and notice where the highest point of your back is off the floor.  (it should be at approximately the navel.)  For most people it’s probably much higher than this.  Getting the back bones to relax and drop closer to the floor, to help reset the natural curves of the spine is key to then finding and using the right muscles to stabilize the back. Ultimately, your Rectus Abdominals (the 6-pack muscles) are the least important for spine support. The Transverse, and Oblique Abdominals play a much bigger role in keeping your back healthy, and the Multifidii are the missing link on the backside. None of these can effectively work without an anchor (the pelvic floor), which most people have never thought about, or been taught to activate properly.  Please note that practicing Kegels is not helping, but could make your back feel worse. Activating the pelvic floor for support, to be able to lift and decompress the spine with better breathing, will help your back feel better.

Help eliminate back pain by doing more than Abdominal Bracing.  Pilates can be an excellent way to start connecting mind, body, and movement to identify which back muscles are movers vs. stabilizers and getting them to do the right job at the right time will set you up for success to maintain a healthy, pain-free back.   If you’re experiencing back pain, find a well-qualified Pilates teacher and get started with one-on-one sessions, it will be the best investment you can make in re-educating your body to beat back pain. Discover how much more you can do with the right muscle support to break the bad habits caused by poor posture, muscle imbalances, and abdominal bracing.

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Here are 3 things I share with my clients to help them practice finding and using better muscle support for their at-home workouts. 

 

Resources:

Laser Spine Institute – Abdominal Bracing Exercise
Abdominal Bracing and Hollowing

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