Stop Tightening Your Abs!

14 October 2015, 12:00 am
Published in Blog
Read 19743 times

If you’ve taken a fitness class lately, scanned the most recent fitness magazine, or watched the newest workout video posted to YouTube, you have undoubtedly been informed that you need to stabilize your core or engage your abdominal muscles while working out.

Delivering a punch in a kickboxing class? Tighten your abdominals!

Doing a downward dog in a yoga class? Stay strong in your belly!

Dancing those pounds into oblivion with a Zumba video? Brace your core!

While there is no doubt that you’ve heard those (or a variation of those), I’m here to warn you that you might not want to believe everything you’re told.

While the term “core strength” has been a buzzword in the fitness industry for a while now, I think it’s overused and grossly misinterpreted. I hear clients on a daily basis who think all of their symptoms will disappear if they simply strengthen their core. They believe their back pain, hip pain and shoulder pain are due to the simple fact that they’re weak. But, that’s not necessarily true. While I believe core strength is important, it’s not a panacea. Ultimately, you have to look at the position and posture of the body to find the true cause of one’s pain.

I’m sure that when you think “core,” you think abdominals. You almost definitely think about the “six-pack” abs, and you might think about your oblique muscles, but I’m sure you don’t think about anything other than those. However, did you know that your core stretches from your toes all the way up to your skull? Yes, that’s right, it’s a full-body chain. Take a look at this:

Notice the blue shading? That’s one continuous line of fascia (a connective tissue) and muscles that runs from the skull all the way down to the foot. Yes it includes your abdominal muscles, but it includes so much more than that. Known as “The Superficial Front Line,” it actually attaches to your toes and your jawbone. In light of that information, hopefully you’re starting to think of you “core” in a different light.

Most health professionals run into trouble when thinking of your core as just the abdominal muscles. The muscle that most of them are targeting when telling you to tighten your abs is the transverse abdominis, otherwise known as the TVA. It is shown in the picture below and runs like a weight-belt around your waist.

However, did you know that the TVA should only be used when compressing the abdominal cavity? That’s right–the TVA is used for forceful pushing…a.k.a. pooping and puking! In addition, it helps women when birthing children. So unless you’re doing one of those three activities while working out, you most likely aren’t activating your TVA like it’s designed to be used!

Think of guy-wires holding up an old-time circus tent. Those wires can only do their job when they’re pulled tight–pulled away from the center of the tent. When the tension is let off of those ropes, therefore allowing the ropes to move toward the tent, the whole tent falls, right? Well, we can think of your TVA in the same way. When you are told to “suck and tuck” or brace your abdominals, there is a compression, an inward motion, that happens. Rather than pulling the guy wires more taut, when you tighten your abs you’re actually performing a moving-in motion.

The end result? While thinking that you’re stabilizing your abdominals, the reality of the situation is that that movement is having the opposite effect on your abdominal cavity. The guy-wires that are being asked to brace your spine have now become “slack,” just like the guy-wires of a circus tent. Remember, the TVA is a compression/inward-motion muscle, not a tension/outward-motion muscle. By “bracing” and compressing your TVA, you’re asking for the whole circus tent to come crashing down. And, because of the superficial fascia lines running from head to toe, the effects of instability aren’t just felt in your lumbopelvic region. No, unfortunately, the entire body becomes unstable.

If you really want to impact your core, focus on the entire kinetic chain. The muscles of a balanced body know exactly when to work and when not to work. If you’re balanced, you won’t have to consciously think about tightening or bracing your abdominals. Think about it this way: If I asked you to keep your biceps muscles flexed throughout your entire workout, you’d look at me like I was crazy. You know that tightening your biceps the entire time wouldn’t make any sense and those muscles would fatigue. But if you wouldn’t continuously tighten your biceps, why are you doing it with your abdominals?

And, just to prove the point: How many of you have your abs tight right now?

How did I know your abs were tight? And, why on Earth were they tight to begin with? We have become so ingrained with the erroneous thinking that we need to tighten our core that most of us are doing it all the time without even thinking about it.

Continue that trend, and your tent will come crashing down.

If you're worried about your tent crashing down, contact us today!

QUESTION: Did I catch you with your abdominals tight? 

Thanks for reading and sharing (it's easy to do by clicking the links below)! Don't forget to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

Rate this item
(22 votes)

Add comment

Security code


# Chance 2016-10-18 16:09
I had some pretty severe back pain this summer that i attributed to too many burpees while not engaging more core enough. While my chiro said it was the ab routine i was doing. My masseuse thought it was a little of both. Curious to see what your thoughts are. (i know it is a vague question)
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# John 2016-10-20 13:56
Great question. When we see clients with back pain, it's almost always due to a lack of proper hip function. You have to remember that the abs attach to the pelvis. If the pelvis is out of position and not working properly, the abs won't fire properly and back pain will be waiting right around the corner. I'd recommend the book "Pain Free" by Pete Egoscue. Read the first three chapters, and then go to the chapter on "Back Pain."

Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Chance 2016-10-20 15:03
Thanks John! I already ordered that book a couple days ago. I look forward to reading it! I was introduced to Egoscue through doing the P90X workouts and the more research I have done, the more interested I am becoming. I really dont have anything major going on, but know their is always room for improving, and that is what I hope to do by readying this book.

Also, my mom recently was diagnosed with Meniere's disease. Suggestions for her?
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Deborah Adams 2017-01-05 14:08
Any future plans for opening a clinic in the Southbay
area (Palos Verdes, Redondo Beach, Torrance)?
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# John 2017-01-10 19:47
We are looking to expand into several locations. Currently, we aren't planning anything for South Bay. We just opened in East Bay/Walnut Creek. Any of our clinics can see you via Skype or FaceTime. You can email me at , and I'll connect you with a therapist!

Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# Gaby 2017-01-15 23:05
Hi, John.
Yes my abs were tight. I started having back pain when my second child was around 1. I was in a pilates class. Yet the doctor and physiotherapist insisted that my core muscles (belly and back, but mainly belly after a pregnancy) were too weak. They were strong enough to squeeze out a baby:-). So I did more and more planks etc. My belly is flatter but pain still there all the time! I started with egoscue e-cises from the pain free book and I can sleep and haven't taken pain killers since.
The same "relax abs" advice comes in the book. I started thinking that our "voluntary" muscles are more involuntary than we think. I think of walking, I don't select muscles for the jobs. I just walk. I need to hold something heavy, do I need to tight my abs? Is this the only muscle that does not work automatically? I like doing planks, and if I stand still for long, lower backs gets tired, contracting TVA helps. But I guess that is because of posture, right?
Reply | Reply with quote | Quote
# John 2017-01-18 03:21
Great comments! Your instincts are correct--Your abs were absolutely strong enough to push out a baby (which automatically makes them stronger than mine)!

Contracting your TVA helps, because by doing so, you're creating intra-abdominal pressure which allows for temporary increased stability of the low back. Hopefully that makes sense! If not, let me .

Reply | Reply with quote | Quote