As we have probably all been told before, the key to prevent lower back pain (LBP) is to have a strong core…
True, lumbar-pelvic stability is indeed crucial to maintain a healthy back. Having strong abdominals helps to keep the spine in place and the pelvis stable.
However, some abdominal workouts might actually increase back problems rather than alleviate them.
Why? Because many abs exercises tend to be either:
Global – in that they engage all the muscles in the core area, including the often over contracted psoas, or
Focused exclusively on the rectus abdominis (the six pack muscles). We do need to strengthen these but when they are overworked they tend to pull the ribcage down and create tension in the shoulders.
The key is thus to target specific muscles – the transverse abdominis – as concluded by Carolyn A. Richardson (1):
“The studies support the argument for LBP exercise treatments to focus on enhancing the stabilization role of the transversus abdominis by precise self-bracing contractions, independently of the other abdominal muscles, rather than general, whole-body exercise programs.”
Tightening the Drawstring & Zipping Up
So what are these “self-bracing contractions”? Doug Keller recommends a very simple and efficient way to practice these self-bracing contractions with the “Tightening the Drawstring” and “Zipping Up” actions.
In order to tighten the drawstring, lie flat on your back and imagine that you want to lift your legs. But you don’t actually do it. Can you feel the action across your lower abdomen? As if you were tightening a drawstring.
Next, still lying on your back, imagine that you want to put on a very tight pair of jeans, squeezing your tummy in, you try to draw the zip up!
Engaging the Right Muscles
Keeping in mind the actions will ensure that you strengthen the right muscles. The first action will engage the transverse abdominals and the lumbar multifidus muscles. The second will strengthen the rectus abdominis, the internal and external obliques.
So the best advice is to remember to “tighten the drawstring and zip up” and to practice with awareness!
When doing these two actions, try to really feel them and locate the various muscles. Not that you need to know their names or for the sake of knowing your anatomy! But simply to develop your “muscle memory” so your brain will remember which muscles to activate when doing specific tasks. Little by little, you will automatically engage the correct muscles when practising. You’ll get a strong core and a happy back!