Should you be consistently contracting your abdominal muscles?
A client asked me recently if it was a good idea to assume that she should hold in her abs all day while walking around and doing other activities in order to keep the core strong and protect her back.
Many people start to hold in their abs for extended periods of time after starting Pilates because of all the cueing to pull the belly in and up. If we do it during the workout, then maybe we should do it all the time?
It’s actually a good question. Strong abs are a good thing, aren’t they? Isn’t that why we love Pilates?
It gets tricky because YES we want to continue to have good posture after the session. YES we want to work the abs and core (the core is not only abs by the way….it’s the back muscles, inner thighs, hips and pelvic floor).
Abdominal exercises in general are important, and many exercises require that you engage the abs to support the posture, even while breathing. Plus, so many of us really do need to strengthen our abdominal muscles.
But do we want to walk around all day holding them in?
Because they need elasticity in order for optimal breathing to happen.
Like any other muscle group, the abs need to be flexible as well as strong.
When you breathe, the diaphragm descends (contracts) when you inhale and the belly expands. The more you extend the belly (the abdominal muscles get to relax), the more you contract your diaphragm. To take a deep belly breath is to reinforce and strengthen the diaphragm.
Allowing the belly to extend is important for a few reasons.
When the diaphragm contracts and descends, it massages the organs, which aids in circulation and helps digestion. It also soothes the vagus nerve which helps the body to relax. This can be a good way to calm the nervous system and feel more grounded.
The movement of the diaphragm also affects the pelvic floor.
The pelvic floor and diaphragm work together to manage the pressure in the abdomen and pelvis. Muscles need to expand and contract, the breath is a big part of this relationship. Click here to read more about how breath affects the pelvic floor.
The pelvic floor, diaphragm and abdominals have a relationship and work together. They both need to contract and release. If you are already contracted, then there is no elasticity in the muscles of the pelvic floor. This can be a potential risk for leaking when coughing or sneezing. When the diaphragm relaxes, the abs and pelvic floor contract (even if only a little bit.) When the diaphragm contracts, the abs and pelvic floor relax and expand. This happens automatically, without you thinking about it. If we are consistently pulling in the abs and not allowing them to relax, then we are interrupting the natural automatic tendency of these muscles to work together. Just mindfully breathing can help, with emphasis on allowing the belly to expand. It can be a little tricky since we can’t really see the diaphragm or pelvic floor, but we can definitely improve awareness in these areas.
We definitely want to strengthen the muscles so they are strong for when they are needed for support. That is important for an overall strong body. But also allow your belly muscles to stretch by allowing them to expand on the inhale. This actually allows them to become stronger.
You can visualize the diaphragm descending as you pull air into your lungs.
Gravity may affect how this feels. Try doing a few belly breaths on your hand and knees, then on your back, then sitting up. Start with 5 to 10 breaths as a way to center yourself or relax. Notice if you can feel the pelvic floor, diaphragm and abdominals moving together as a sychronized system.
So the moral of this story is, you need the abs to be strong enough to support your back when it’s appropriate, and to relax when it’s appropriate. The abs are important for core strength, but also play a big part in the pressure system for breathing. All muscles need to relax as well as be strong.
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