The ‘core movement’ has repeatedly touted that the best way to ‘protect’ your back is to have a strong core and to regularly tighten your abdominal muscles in everyday activities. Yet, like many generally-accepted theories, it may be time to take a closer look at this approach and consider any unintended consequences.
As a Professional Ergonomist, I was taught that tightening the abdominals, lightly, would ‘protect’ the back. This was taught to me, it seemed to make sense, and I in turn taught this concept as a part of many training sessions. I recall teaching hospital transport workers to lightly tighten their abdominals when pushing a patient in a wheelchair or bed, in this accepted strategy to reduce injury rates among staff.
It wasn’t until I read a remarkable book by Kathleen Porter entitled Ageless Spine, Lasting Health that I began to question this widely accepted concept. Ms. Porter, whose background is in yoga, shared the work introduced earlier by Noelle Perez of the Institute D’Aplomb in Paris, France, and in it shared an alternate approach. The book theorizes that, sometime around the 1920s with the introduction of ‘flappers’ and continuing to this day, we modeled imbalanced postures and now face a wide range of musculoskeletal problems as a result.
The idea that tightening the abdominals would actually introduce risk to the back is an intriguing one – that when you tighten your abs, or, specifically, your rectus abdominus, several mechanical consequences result.
- First, when you shorten the distance between the rib cage (origin) and the pelvis (insertion) as you do when you engage your rectus abdominus, compression of the spine results. In addition, this compression is not through the central axis of the spine, so it will also result in a torque about the spinal discs. Spinal compression will occur to a greater extent in the anterior portion of the disc.
- Second, breathing is affected as the rib cage is pulled down and the lungs are not allowed to fully expand. Interestingly, this also causes the muscles of the back of the neck to contract in response, often resulting in neck pain or headaches. (Try this the next time you have a headache: take a breath, and as you exhale, consciously relax your abdominals. In many cases, your headache will go away!)
- Third, the front of the pelvis is pulled upward, resulting in posterior tilt. In this pelvic orientation, the spine no longer rests on the sacral shelf in a balanced manner and will need to compensate for this imbalance with excessive curvature.
It can take quite a bit of time – from 6-12 months is common -and a consistent effort to “unlearn’ tightening your abdominals, but in my opinion it is well worth it in improved comfort and ease of movement.