A number of years ago, the fitness industry became obsessed with training the ‘core’, and to do this, apparently, you had to make the abs BURN! A traditional PT session wasn’t over until you’d given your clients a good ‘ab blast’ at the end, consisting of sit-ups and crunches, oblique crunches and a good, long plank hold. This new, trained ‘core’ would enable clients to ‘brace’, ‘tense’, turn their ‘abs on’ and lift heavier weights, not to mention giving them that flat stomach they always wanted….. or would it?
There should be, and is, another way – and here is why….
When you are told to ‘brace’, what do you do? If you think to yourself ‘Abs on’, what happens to your body? When you ‘tense’, what happens?
The majority of us will move into some kind of breath holding, ab tightening, pushing out, bearing down, tensing, bracing, ‘hardening of the outer abdominal muscles’ pattern. For the most part, unless you have been educated otherwise, a bracing pattern such as this does not put you in a stronger position; it just puts you into a more rigid position. And as we know, over time, rigid things break.
When most people ‘brace’ and ‘tense’ and ‘tighten’ they are working only with the top layers of abdominal muscles, the rectus and obliques, (those muscles worked in the ‘ab blast’) and for the postnatal population, along with those in office jobs spent with tilted pelvis, rounded backs and hunched shoulders, this is ineffective in building true ‘core’ strength, or, strength from the inside out.
I believe we need to change the phrases we use from ‘brace’, ‘tense’, ‘abs on’, to ‘activate’, ‘engage’ and ‘have an awareness’ in conjunction with learning how to properly work our inner core: the pelvic floor and transversus abdominis (to keep it simple.) This is particularly relevant when working with pre and postnatal women. We need to ensure pre and postnatal women are working properly and efficiently from the inside out. We need to re-train muscles away from ineffective bracing and tensing patterns to ensure there is no bearing down through pelvic floor or pushing out through a weak abdominal wall.
We might also address what Antony Lo, The Physio Detective, describes as ‘tension to task’. Do you need to prepare your body to pick up a 3kg bag of shopping in the way you might prepare it for a 40kg deadlift?’ When asked in perspective like this, we might say ‘of course not’ but by using bracing cues in the gym, are we getting it all wrong out of the gym?
Many of the early pre and postnatal women I work with will need to use a pre-activation before lifting in or out of the gym. A well taught and cued pre-activation can enable the body to ‘remember’ that it needs to engage through pelvic floor and transversus abdominis as it moves into a specific movement pattern, thus helping to prevent bearing down, leaking and other pelvic floor symptoms. Some women will potentially need to work with their own pre-activation techniques for the rest of their lives, depending on what their body has been through pre-children, in pregnancy, birth and postnatally.
Every woman’s experience is different and through working with a Women’s Health Physiotherapist, we can ensure each woman is looked after to the best of our combined ability.
But what about the BURN?
Beginning with the basics, when most people do a sit-up or a crunch they are lying on their back, with hands clamped tightly behind their neck while they go hell for leather up and down, up and down. The rectus abdominis is working overtime, the neck is being wrenched, the lumbar spine is doing who knows what and if they are postnatal or have a weak pelvic floor, the intra-abdominal pressure created in their abdomen isn’t doing them any favours. Also, the BURN doesn’t target those crucial inner core muscles. To top it off, from an aesthetic perspective, this movement is doing nothing for the flat stomach they hope they will get.
Specifically, from a postnatal perspective, I know more and more that sit-ups are not THE most detrimental activity a woman could be doing however it’s certainly not the most effective, is rarely done well and could be doing her harm, so for this reason I stand behind my decision to never prescribe a sit-up to any of my clients again.
What do you consider to be your core? What cues do you use? Do you feel like you could use better training and terminology around this topic? How can we train the inner core more effectively and banish the BURN for good?
I’d love to hear your perspective and I’ll be weighing in with my ideas around more effective cueing and ‘core activations’ in the coming weeks.
Mum-focused author, educator and business owner, Jen Dugard is on a mission to ensure every woman is safely and effectively looked after when she becomes a mother. She is a highly qualified trainer and fitness professional educator and has been specialising in working with mums for over a decade. MumSafe is the go-to place online for women to find mum-focused fitness services that are all accredited, experienced and partnered with women’s health physios so you know you are in very safe hands.