You will often hear and read terms such as “switch on your core”, “brace your abs” or “lock on your core”. These are popular phrases in group exercise classes and are often used by personal trainers. They are supposed to be a cue to remind you to turn on your abdominal or torso muscles to protect and support your spine.
What often happens, however, is that you brace your core muscles constantly during exercise in the belief that you are doing the right thing for your back. Constant bracing, however, can lead to the muscles becoming excessively tight and stiff. In particular, the more superficial muscles groups, such as the erector spinae, can begin to dominate the movement.
When your abdominal and torso muscles are contracted excessively when you move, it actually becomes hard to move the body. This ‘stiffness’ may be necessary for certain activities, for example, when you perform a plank. But in most cases, your torso needs to be free to move, so that the arms and legs can, in turn, move freely.
A great example of this is to imagine walking around with tense thigh muscles. Your movements actually become somewhat robotic, and the body feels stiff and less mobile.
It is worth remembering that the muscles in your body are elastic and are designed to contract, relax and stretch. When you “brace your abs”, your spine and also your pelvic floor can become compromised because the muscles are not relaxing when they are supposed to.
This involves gently switching on your deep abdominals ( ie pulling your belly button in a little towards your spine), lifting your pelvic floor muscles gently and maintaining a natural, comfortable breathing pattern. The muscles then relax at the end of the movement pattern.
As an example, when lifting a weight, say, a unilateral shoulder raise, the muscles of the core work together well to support the spine. You gently lift the pelvic floor muscles and draw the abdominal and back muscles in a little to support the spine, whilst your breathing is normal and easy. These core muscles are all engaged gently as you lift the weight out to the side of the body and then return and then they relax. (NB. Posture is also important here, as maintaining a natural neutral spinal curve, with shoulders relaxed, facilitates correct core activation. More information on posture can be found in a previous blog “How our habits shape our Posture”).
When you use the Roller, gentle abdominal or tummy contractions and normal breathing is encouraged throughout all of the exercises and routines. The instability inherent in the rollers use actually facilitates the low level deep tummy contractions.
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