Remember the last time someone playfully pretended to punch you in the stomach? Even though you knew that person doesn’t mean you any harm, you still instinctively hold your abs tight. Your whole core tightened and you pulled back. Once you realized they were playing, you probably even “playfully” punched them on the shoulder…You didn’t think, you just reacted.
When you saw it coming, you didn’t have to tell your abs “hey, tighten up down there, a punch is coming and there are vital organs that need protection!” Your body just did it.
Do you have to hold your abs tight?
Our core is reflexive, which means it will respond to whatever stimulus it needs to. Try these three simple tasks right now and see what happens:
1. Stand up and place your hands on your belly so you can feel the muscles there.
Now lift one leg up like a flamingo – you are balancing on one leg, right? What did you feel your abs do? In a well functioning system, the muscles will respond to help distribute your body weight over one leg instead of two. For that you need more control in the abdominal area, provided by the muscles there in coordination with other muscle chains in the body. And, it happened all on its own.
2. Get on your back on the floor, with your arms by your side and legs stretched out.
Place one hand on your abdomen. Now start to roll over and get up off the floor. Abs on? You bet! The complex coordination between upper and lower body in this rolling pattern could not happen without abdominal muscles in your middle doing their coordinated part. Each portion of the abdominal canister shortening, lengthening, tensing, squeezing, pulling and releasing like a well-conducted orchestra.
3. Stand back up and place your hands on your belly to sense the tone.
Now run in place with knees up…what happened now? Jump a couple of times! Even more tone. Want to feel even more of this? Cough or pretend to laugh hysterically – the abs are doing yet another thing, all on their own.
By now you are starting to get that the abs are reflexive in movement (whether that’s running or coughing) – another way to say it is that they hang there at appropriate length and tension until there is an external demand for them to do work.
Your ab or core muscles are designed to turn on and coordinate appropriately for each task, and do so relative to each other as well. If you were to consciously hold your abs tight instead of letting them work automatically, it wouldn’t work. There would no way to tell the rectus abdominis (the long muscle that is often seen as a six-pack) and the transversus abdominis (the deep corset muscle that wraps front to back under the rectus) how to coordinate their activities.
If you were to hold your abs tight and try to “control” the tension in your core with your will and conscious mind, you would end up stiffening the area, creating less options for the spine to move, less ability for the muscles in the area to reflexively respond. Your muscles would be listening to you, not the environment. They would not be paying proper attention to what are your bones are doing, how gravity is acting on them, or where momentum is taking you. The unnatural stiffness produced by holding your abs tight ultimately forces your body to find new ways to move under these artificial rules of tightness and control.
Shape Magazine Asked 6 Experts
In this month’s issue of Shape magazine, I was quoted alongside some of the brightest minds in the health and wellness world, from Stewart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics to physical therapist John Martinez. Shape asked us to help them dispel myths about core health and core strength.
Shape’s Janet Lee interviewed me, and we discussed the idea that it’s good to hold your abs tight to improve core strength.
That’s Myth #3.
“You wouldn’t walk around with your glutes contracted all day, or you arm curled halfway up, would you?” – Galina Denzel
You wouldn’t, right?
We spoke a lot about the core in our book Eat Well, Move Well, Live Well, and in chapter 28 “Redefine Your Core” we were very specific about some of the side effects of keeping your abs “on” all day long. Constantly holding your abs tight can lead to incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse, to upper back and neck pain, and even to anxiety and hyper-vigilance.
Keeping a reflexive part of you under manual control comes at a cost.
Low back pain? Pelvic floor disorder?
In my studio, about 8 of 10 clients complain of low back pain, and the older they are (read, the longer they have been tightening consciously), the more pelvic floor problems I see.
Trust for the body’s reflexes has been compromised for quite some time, and the habit to hold the abs tight is harder to break, but not impossible.
For many of my clients the holding started after a bout of back pain, or after surgery, when they felt they needed to stabilize more. For a short time all the pulling in and tensing up created a sense of safety – as if nothing wrong could happen to their spine.
Many continued their physical activity, even choosing exercises that stabilize the core and keep the spine from “moving too much.” What they didn’t receive at the time of their recovery from back pain or surgery were the tools to continue moving with freedom once their pain was gone.
For many, stabilizing and stiffening the core and spine became a sort of mental orthotic, one they couldn’t leave the house without. Trusting your body again, and relaxing the abs can be tough, especially after years of keeping them tight out of fear of pain and further injury.
You don’t have to hold your abs tight anymore
Luckily, we humans learn and unlearn masterfully. As hard as it is, you can let it (or them) go.
For the sake of your breathing, your digestion, your core and spinal strength, your connection with your body, and everything that nature made perfect, let them go.
The next time you catch yourself holding your abs tight to keep them strong and healthy, remember that you don’t have to, and let go a little.
Over the next few weeks and months of letting go, you will be letting your reflexes return, and be able to develop the core strength your body should instinctively have.
In the meantime, grab your own June issue of Shape Magazine, and let me know what you think of the myth-busting article – we loved it!