Summary: Here are 4 reasons (and more) to consider Abdominal Bracing for fitness and self-care. Engaging abdominal muscles during your fitness training sessions increases time-under-tension, improves postural and spine patterns and spacing, and decreases potential injuries to the body. Applying that to daily life increases its likelihood in becoming an innate pattern for the individual.
What is Ab Bracing?
For simplicity, abdominal bracing is generally engaging what is known as “core” muscles, where the body produces large amounts of muscular force to stabilize the spine. Consequently, the core creates a type of corset with abdominal muscles around the trunk of the body. The core is primarily known as the body's way to protect the spine from injury during movement. While it is involved in more than merely compression and rigidity, this is the commonly known thought around engaging the core. Various muscles, tissues and nerves are involved in this process, and they impact more than what we consider the core, or abdominal muscles. One example is in correcting an excessive anterior lumbar tilt (known as hyperlordosis, where there is an excessive arching of the lower back, associated with the lower abdomen protruding forward), which may cause tension on the hamstrings and/or affecting its function during movement. Utilizing abdominal bracing could provide a positive outcome of correcting this disposition. Another issue that can be effectively corrected with abdominal bracing is associated with sitting at a desk over an extended period of time. Here, compression and lower back arching occur, as incorrect body patterns prevail over healthy patterns. Consequently, abdominal bracing provides an opportunity for increasing core strength involving various different components, as discussed above, as well as other connections, such as the lower back, hamstrings, and deeper in the abdominal cavity.
Many, who claim expertise in this activity, view it from a variety of aspects, ranging from biomechanical to neurologic functionality to kinetic chains, to name a few. Holistically speaking, it includes all of this and more. For example: nerves, tissues, body composition, and fluid dynamics work as potential inputs to produce this activity. Furthermore, muscles alone do not create stability in movement; stability is not being still. This is particularly true while living life. Including lengthening patterns can be vital in movement as it synergistically utilizes the neuromuscular system and other relationships involved for appropriate motor patterns. This then enhances a person’s ability to recruit what is needed for the movement or activity.
How To Do It-Traditional
Abdominal bracing involves isometrically contracting deep ab muscles. This would involve the abdominal wall, transverse abdominis, and external and internal oblique muscles (preferably for a supportive buttress against spine instability), and it would also include other abdominal muscles and the erector spinae. Breath volume is dependent on the brace needed for the activity. If this happens automatically, training to brace will expand the capability for this to occur during movements when needed. The body understands what is needed and sends the appropriate signals for it to occur, optimally, in unison. If activation is difficult, training them will allow this to occur. In some respects, how it will be done depends on the activity that is required. Specific cues that are generally regarded are “bracing your abs,” “activate your core,” and “squeeze the core”, for example.
Ultimately, training the core muscles to effectively relax and stretch in the appropriate amount needed for the contraction of the abs is most ideal (as opposed to an all-around contraction that creates too much rigidity). Striking the appropriate balance with this is key. To find out if abdominal bracing is causing rigidity, try this: tighten the torso muscles and try to walk around. If you are feeling overly restricted, stiff, and less mobile, training for muscle activation from other sources may be needed for more comprehensive ability.
How To Do It-Beyond Traditional
While not traditionally thought of as abdominal bracing, engaging more lumbar spacing for the spine to tuck under--in combination with ab contraction--could provide the needed adjustment for too much rigidity, which causes many to feel too robotic and inflexible. This is because the natural fluidity of biomechanics is interrupted. It is possible to even add an abdominal hollowing technique (see example below). For those with hyperlordosis, this method of correction provides better alignment for abdominal bracing. There are some who would advocate anything outside of the spinal stiffness of the bracing technique to contradict the rigidity needed for the spine. As mentioned earlier, finding the appropriate juxtaposition of this could be most beneficial for the activity being performed. As always, the body’s pathways are much more complicated in its processes. Therefore, these topics tend to excessively focus on isolation and many create a certain dogma of exclusivity, by advocating for either one method or the other, instead of an “and” (or being inclusive). As such, other articles have purported that teaching different motor tasks for the abdominals is flawed thinking, as one negates the other due to what occurs in the “activation” of abdominal bracing, instead of, let’s say, a hollowing technique. Again, this narrow view of isolation does not always provide a complete picture to allow an individual to have many tools in their toolbox. Nor is it a reflection of the various subtask activities and processes involved in the main “show task” here--abdominal bracing. To reinforce this message, remember that abdominal bracing does not mean that we train this in isolation. As mentioned earlier, holistically, many other factors and muscles influence what, how, and why it is happening.
A common occurrence during bracing for trainees and class participants is to squeeze the glutes extremely tight, keeping the force in this region instead of in the other abdominal and spinal muscles. This then restricts their movement with too rigid a spine and the engaged movement becomes inhibited. Much of this may happen because the “core” muscles do not have the neurological tracks developed to send the appropriate signaling to the muscle fibers to perform the activity. Therefore, understanding and engaging in what is considered more of a dynamic stabilization may promote developing activation patterns outside of glute squeezing (or other negative patterns creating rigidity), with more movement in the pelvic region; and it allows for maintaining a normal breathing pattern. Consequently, it is important to develop or maintain movement patterns from a wide menu of options. Expanding this menu may also involve finding cueing phrases for oneself that allows expansion of the normal ab pattern invoked of squeezing abs when utilizing the normal bracing cueing phrases discussed below.
Exercises & Training
An article from the American Council of Exercise (ACE) provides a great perspective on the positives of abdominal bracing and unintended outcomes (if used without a multifaceted approach), and considers the context in which it will be used. An extremely important point brought out is this: what happens in an individual when they hear the cue for abdominal bracing. Too often the words used focus on stabilization versus dynamism for spine stabilization. From the discussion earlier on how to ab brace, consider what happens when one hears these types of cues from the ACE Article: