Abdominal Activation During Exercise – Drawing-In Versus Bracing

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Abdominal Activation During Exercise – Drawing-In Versus Bracing

To Draw In Or Not To Draw In

When I first started delving into the science behind “core” training over 10 years ago, the drawing-in maneuver was the big breakthrough. I first learned the technique from Paul Chek who learned it from a group of physiotherapists from New Zealand.

The concept came from a book, Therapeutic Exercise for Spinal Segmental Stabilization in Low Back Pain by Richardson et al, that was based on some exciting new research. The authors found that their physical therapy patients with low back pain had timing issues with their transverse abdominis. The transverse abdominus should turn on prior to any movement of the body and they found that in people with low back pain, the transverse abdominus would activate after movement had already occurred. The authors used specific exercises to get the functioning of this muscle back and their patients back pain got better.

Based on this information, people in the fitness industry, like Paul Chek, started teaching the draw-in maneuver to to improve transverse abdominus activation as well as incorporating it in exercises like deadlifts and squats.

This was new and exciting stuff at the time. The fitness profession caught a hold of this information and it spread like crazy throughout the fitness world. The next thing you know, every personal trainer, pilates instructor, yoga instructor and aerobics class teacher was instructing all of their clients to “pull your belly toward your spine” when they did exercise. I know because I was one of them.

Now let’s address whether you should be drawing in or not. The answer is: No. And yes. Here’s what I mean:

Enter Stuart McGill

No, you should not pull the belly in toward your spine while exercising. Why? Well, the new school of thought on this subject, based on the latest research by Stuart McGill in his book Low Back Disorders, you should focus on contracting your abdominal muscles or making your abs “tight” during exercise. When you do this, your transverse abdominis is activated as well.

According to McGill’s meticulous research, focusing on pulling in your belly button towards your spine actually decreases spinal stability when doing exercises like deadlifts, squats and overhead presses. That’s a ten-dollar way of saying there’s less support from your abdominal muscles. Pulling in your belly while performing exercise is a bad idea especially with certain exercises and if you’re lifting heavy weights.

Abdominal “bracing”, as McGill likes to call it, is the way to go for most exercises. Not only is it backed up by solid research from one of the leading spine specialists in the world, I’ve personally used it myself and with my clients. You can feel the added stability, especially when you’re lifting heavy in exercises like deadlifts and squats. Also, abdominal bracing is also easier to do then pulling in your belly. All you have to do is stand with good posture, inhale, and tighten your abs maintaing good postural alignment.

An Exception To The Rule

I follow Stuart McGill’s bracing concept when I’m strength training, but I’ve found that many of my clients have benefitted from transverse abdominus and pelvic floor isolation exercises. Many things can cause dysfunction with these muscles and I’ve found that many of my clients have trouble activating these muscles

I’ve learned a lot from Diane Lee, an internationally renowned physical therapist for her clinical work on lumbar and pelvic disability and pain. After reading several of her articles and speaking with a Physical Therapist friend of mine who is a big fan of her work, I’ve reintroduced motor control exercises for these muscles with great success. Many nagging issues that my clients and myself were experiencing started to improve after adding several sets of these exercises into our routines.

Here are some of the important points I’ve learned through Diane Lee’s work:

  • Low back pain, surgery or injury to the abdominal area, and pregnancy can cause the transverse abdominus muscle to lose it’s function.
  • Without restoring proper function of the transverse abdominus through training, problems with this muscle can be present even after pain or injury has subsided.
  • Pain in the pelvic area, trauma, childbirth and surgery can cause this group of muscles to lose it’s function.
  • Low back pain, pelvic pain, hip pain and urinary incontinence can result from weak pelvic floor muscles.

In Summary

  • Don’t pull your belly button toward your spine while doing strength training exercises. Doing this de-stabilizes your spine and predisposes you to injury.
  • Instead, use bracing which is tightening your abs while you lift. Tighten them but make sure you can still breathe well. Doing this protects your spine by adding stability from your abdominal muscles.
  • Specific exercises for your transversus abdominus and pelvic floor might be needed in some situations; especially when someone has been injury/surgery or pain in the abdominal and pelvic region. There also might be a case of doing these exercises prophylactically.

I hope that clears up some of the controversy surrounding these two important techniques.

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