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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.


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



Laser Spine Institute – Abdominal Bracing Exercise
Abdominal Bracing and Hollowing

Posted by administrator in Back Pain, Functional Movement.

You CAN Eliminate Back Pain with Pilates Core Exercises

Use Pilates to help eliminate back painAre you ready to kick your back pain problems to the curb?

Get ready to eliminate back pain… You can start feeling better fast!

Back pain is a significant problem in the USA.  There can be a variety of different reasons to end up challenged with back pain problems, and it can be extremely aggravating to figure out how to feel better.  But there are lots of different exercises that can be done to eliminate back pain, and Pilates can be an excellent choice in the process of improving posture, strength, flexibility, and developing healthy movement habits to enjoy life.

I was recently contacted by Natalie, at Runway Pilates to be a contributor to an article she was writing 11 Pilates Instructors Reveal the Best Core Exercises For Back Pain.  It was awesome to be asked to share my insights.  Then I realized that I needed to be succinct in my response! With my own personal low back issues, and having worked with lots of clients over the past two-plus decades of teaching Pilates, I’ve got so many thoughts to share on the subject of eliminating back pain problems.

Posted by administrator in Back Pain, Pilates.

Core Support for Better Posture

Low Center vs. High Center: Get Your Core Support Where It Can Serve You Best

By finding and focusing on the right segment of your midsection to improve core support you can improve posture, help eliminate aches and pains, and reduce stress for better health.

One of the things I spend lots of time on with my clients is identifying the difference between Low Center and High Center support.  Lack of body awareness, not understanding the difference between low center and high center, not knowing what your normal “go-to” recruiting pattern for core support really is, are just a few of the reasons why I believe so many people have issues with low back pain, hip pain, shoulder pain, and neck pain.

You might “kind of” know that your posture isn’t great.  But you might not completely realize that YOU are 100% in charge of HOW you are holding your posture, and 100% in change of WHERE you are holding your posture. You also might not realize how much your “not-so-great” posture habits have been affecting every little ache and pain your body experiences throughout the day.

The cumulative effect of poor posture habits over time, is that some of those little aches and pains turn into chronic problems and for many people this leads to shots, surgeries, and mis-use injuries.  But at the root of it all is POSTURE. 

Posted by administrator in Alleviating Pain & Chronic Health Problems, Back Pain.

Bye-Bye Back Pain By Practicing this Simple Back-Opening Breathing Exercise

Reducing Back Pain with Breathing Are You Ready to Take Action and Do Something About Your Back Pain?

Back pain can be anywhere along the spine from the tip of your tailbone, all the way up to the base of your skull.  Regardless of where it hurts, or what you’ve done to aggravate it – the truth is, that all anybody ever really wants is a quick fix to make the pain go away.

I know personally how life-altering it is to live with chronic back pain.  I was born with defects at L5-S1 and that instability has made maintaining my core strength a necessity to keep me healthy.  And if you’re low back is out of alignment, nothing stacked on top of that is quite right either so back pain can result anywhere from the bottom to the top.

If it’s not your low back that’s bothering you, it might be your mid-back, or upper back / neck and shoulders.  It’s nice if a chiropractic adjustment can get you back in alignment, but then the question remains – how long will your adjustment hold before it hurts again?  Pills and shots tend to mask the pain so you feel amazing while you’re medicated, and worse off when it wears off!

There are 2 critical things to pay attention to that can quickly begin alleviating your back pain problems. 

  1. Better Posture
  2. Breathing

Ideally our spine is designed to move freely in all directions.  When the bones are “out of balance” it restricts movement.   Muscles get into tight over-holding patterns, and the daily activities we do over and over sometimes only make it worse.  Muscles move bones, so getting the right muscle balance to maintain healthy body alignment for better posture really does matter if you’re serious about fixing your back pain problems.  We need stability AND mobility.

It’s nice to think, “ If I could just “relax” my back would feel better.”  But the truth is, it’s a combination of both work and release that will make the biggest difference to improve your health.  Right now that work/release balance for good posture is out of whack, and the only way your body can tell you there’s a problem is with a pain signal.

Improving posture is going to be a long-term project…  There is lots to become aware of, bad habits to replace with better habits, and never-ending opportunities to incorporate posture-improving exercises into your weekly workout program. If you’re interested in getting started paying attention to your current posture habits click here to take this Posture Quiz.

Now let’s talk about breathing: Keep reading and take in a few deep breaths.  Notice where the air is going inside your body.

  • Does your low belly stick out when you inhale?
  • Does most of your air rise up into the front of your chest? 

(Both of these not-so-hot breathing habits are contributing factors to low back pain.)

  • Are you able to take a full, deep breath, or are you a shallow breather?

If your back really hurts you might be compensating by not breathing deeply enough to avoid more pain (when in fact this choice is only making the lock down effect worse, and creating more tension.) 

  • Do you breathe evenly into BOTH lungs?  Or tend to fill one side more than the other? 

(Not breathing evenly, back muscles are not working/stretching evenly.)

  • When you inhale do you lift your shoulders up around your ears, or is the ribcage lifting and the shoulders are just riding along on the lift of the cage?

(If you’re actively hiking your shoulders up, you’re jamming your head/neck into your body compressing the cervical spine.)

Since so many people these days have forward head posture your poor neck and shoulder muscles are already on over-drive to keep your head from falling off your body, which is a part of why your shoulders want to hike up to begin with and why you may be dealing with neck pain, mid-back pain or both.

Poor neck! Poor shoulders! Poor back!  Have I gotten your attention yet?

Posted by administrator in Back Pain, Breathing.

10 Pilates Moves to Alleviate Back Pain: Don’t Do These…

Why these 10 Pilates Moves to Alleviate Back Pain, just might make your back feel worse instead of better…

10 Pilates Moves to Alleviate Back PainI recently read an article from ACE: 10 Pilates Moves to Alleviate Back Pain and I so vehemently disagree with the exercises and information in this article that I have to share my thoughts.

Here’s the short version of what I’m thinking about this article:  10 Pilates Moves to Alleviate Back Pain if executed well because you really understand Pilates and don’t have any back problems to start with!

Now if you want a few more details about this, keep reading.  I’m on a rant and this is a longer than usual post, but if you have chronic back pain and want to use Pilates as a method to help, the info below will be worth your time to read more.

I love that Pilates is a hot topic to help people alleviate back pain, but it really bothers me to read articles like the recent post from ACE Fitness, which starts by saying that, “Many people with chronic back pain have felt their aches diminish with regular Pilates sessions.”  Yes, I agree.  Then the article goes on to say, “While equipment-based Reformer sessions can be costly and group mat classes may not target your specific needs, many Pilates exercises can help realign your movement patterns to prevent and lessen common back pain.” And then there’s more… “Here are 10 moves that, when practiced regularly, can help improve posture and strengthen the support structures that take pressure off the lower back.”

Sigh… as a fitness professional who has been in the health and wellness industry for forty years, and more specifically focused on Pilates and functional movement training for the past twenty years. It frightens me to see this article and think that people with chronic back pain are reading this and thinking, “Great, I don’t need to invest in Pilates equipment training, OR find a well-qualified Pilates teacher to help me, and why bother with group mat classes, I can just do these 10 exercises on my own and my back pain will go away!” AUUGHGHHHH!

Here’s why if you chose to follow the advice from the ACE article, 10 Pilates Moves to Alleviate Back Pain, your risk of further injury is imminent:

Posted by Aliesa George in Alleviating Pain & Chronic Health Problems, Back Pain, Pilates, Pilates Exercises, Techniques & Teaching Tips.

Biking and Low Back Pain – Smart Exercise Choices for a Healthy Spine

bikingQuestion about Biking and Low Back Pain:
“I am looking for some pointers on using a spin bike.  I am challenged with low back pain, use clip in shoes, and am very conscious of heels straight in line from toes, but need butt and back positions.  Thanks for any help you can offer.”  Dana

Answer from Aliesa:

In my opinion, spin class and biking is perhaps not the most ideal exercise choice if dealing with low back pain.

If you look at most bikers, the low spine is rounded with the pelvis and hips tucked under, creating a prime opportunity for discs to translate out of place to the back.  You sit in this position for an hour or more, and when you get off the bike it may be difficult to stand up straight!  Add to this the fact that the head and neck are cranked into extension to see where you’re going, and you’ve got flexion through most of the spine, and hyper-extension in the neck.   A healthy spine can put in lots of miles in this position, but if you have low back pain, SI joint problems, or neck and shoulder pain, this body position for cycling may only make things worse.   

Posted by Aliesa George in Back Pain, Exercise and Fitness.

Low Back Pain: The Sexy Cat Exercise for Healthy Hips and a Happy Back

catHave you ever experienced hip pain or low back pain?  Most people at some point in their lives have dealt with one or both of these debilitating problems.  Our sedentary lifestyle and poor movement habits have led to grippy overworked hip flexors, weak abs, and generally speaking imbalances with the strength and flexibility of the lumbo-pelvic complex (our hips, legs, pelvis, and low back.)

Posted by Aliesa George in Back Pain, Exercise and Fitness, Pilates Exercises, Techniques & Teaching Tips.

Pilates Exercise Tips for Gardening without Back Pain

Top 5 Pilates Training Tips to Stay Healthy and Help Avoid Knee, Hip and Back Pain While Having Fun Working in the Yard and Gardening

shov elIt’s that time of year again; Mother Nature is calling us outside to play in the garden.  It’s time to pull weeds, plant and clean things up so that we can enjoy a lovely yard and watch things bloom and grow.

I know that even with my small city lot, it usually takes me two or three full weekends of solid effort for Spring clean-up, just to get the weeds pulled, shrubs trimmed and everything ready for the planting and growing season.  I wish I had more space for fruit trees and a big vegetable garden, but right now my yard is filled with perennial flowers and herbs – things that don’t require too much time and effort for me to maintain and enjoy.

But even so, after a day in the yard, my feet, hands, legs and back always seem to remind me that I’ve done something out of the ordinary and found and used a few muscle groups that don’t get worked in my normal everyday Pilates and weight room workouts.  So how do we stay healthy and avoid knee, hip and back pain while having fun working in the yard and gardening? 

Posted by Aliesa George in Back Pain, Pilates.

The Spiral Effect of the Spine to Swing your Arms for a Healthy Stride

Use Spine Twisting To Improve Your Walking & Running Technique

Arm Swing, Running picThere are lots of things you can pay attention to when you walk and run that can improve your pace, stride, form and function.  A great arm swing is one of the key factors in not only freeing the arms and shoulders, but also strengthening your core support and reducing stress and tension in through your whole spine.

If your back hurts after a long walk or run or you notice more tension in your neck and shoulders before, during or after getting your miles in, there’s a good chance you’re missing out on the important “spiral effect” of the spine while you’re swinging your arms.

It’s interesting to observe bodies in motion.  And sometimes, seeing what to look for, can make it easier to feel in your own body exactly what your movement habits are.

Posted by Aliesa George in Back Pain, Exercise and Fitness, Running, Walking.

Injury and Exercise: How to Bounce Back and Be Stronger than Ever

fitness timeDiscover Ways to Creatively “Work Out” Around Your Limitations to Stay On Track for a Healthy, Active Life

It’s much nicer when we are able to stay healthy, active and fit.  But sometimes whether it’s a medical health issue, surgery, accident or over-training injury we find ourselves hurt…  Out of commission, unable to do even simple daily chores much less a vigorous heart-pounding workout.  The pain and frustration of NOT being able to do what we want can send your training program into a tailspin.  When we are young it seems easy to just grin and bear it, pretend like the pain isn’t really there and keep on keeping on.  But with age comes wisdom (well, sometimes…) and, if we are smart, we figure out better strategies to rest, recover and get back in action.

Posted by Aliesa George in Alleviating Pain & Chronic Health Problems, Back Pain, Exercise and Fitness, Functional Movement, Mind-Body Health, Optic Neuritis.