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Brace, Brace, Brace!

Last week we discussed how to get through your morning in a Spine Friendly manner by paying attention to the postures that you adopt and by being mindful of that critical first 45 minutes out of bed. Then we discussed how Abdominal Breathing, as distinct from simply moving air in and out, brings multiple benefits for your back, neck and shoulders as well as opening the door to a more general sense of calm. Your exercise was to practice Abdominal Breathing, which is a pretty good way to get going with some structured exercises, as long as you set aside some time and do the work.

Today, another concept, another simple exercise. The Abdominal Brace!

First, the concept. We all know what a skeleton looks like with the skull, arms and legs and ribcage taking centre-stage, but have you ever noticed how thin and insubstantial the bit that connects the ribcage to pelvis – the Lumbar Spine – looks? We have a large solid looking thorax, and a solid pelvic girdle where our hips attach, with very little else (other than giblets) in between. This gives us a couple of problems; firstly, it leaves our giblets exposed to damage in an accident, and secondly if we pick up something heavy or if something pushes our Thorax in one direction and our pelvis in the other, then the lumbar spine is at risk of injury.

What we really need then, is another set of bones that link the thorax to the pelvis – something to protect our giblets, and a way to stiffen the lumbar spine when we lift heavy things, play rugby or our kids unexpectedly hang off our necks! The problem with more ribs is exactly what corseted women throughout history have found – breathing gets very difficult and you can’t bend down to put your own socks on.

The ideal solution would be a built-in corset, or a rib cage that extends from shoulders to pelvis, but which could be selectively and instantly made rigid or bendy to suit the occasion.  Fortunately, we have this exact system already in place – the muscles that make up the abdominal wall. These muscles cover the same area that a corset would, and they elegantly resolve both of the problems that we noted above. When theses muscles are tense they protect the giblets and support the spine, yet can relax and change length to allow free movement so that you can breath and put your socks on. 

There is a huge amount of information in all media around this topic, and it generally all gets bundled up and labelled “Core”, involving lots of hard resistance exercise. These exercises absolutely have a place, and I’m going to post about those next week. 

This week however we are starting at the beginning by getting you in touch with your abdominal wall but forget any pre-conception of ‘6-pack’ or ‘abs toning’ – these are concepts that come from looking in the mirror at the gyms. Instead, Start to think of your abdominal wall as “Flexible Ribs”, protecting and stiffening your trunk, and you will start to think about how things work rather than what they look like!

Now, the exercise:

Lie on your back and gently place the fingers of both hands on your abdomen, either side of your belly button. 

Allow everything to relax, and press your fingers down into your belly towards the small of your back. You should feel very little resistance or discomfort. 

Now tense your tummy muscles, and all being well you should feel a firm layer under our fingers, pushing your fingers back outwards. 

Relax, and the firm layer should disappear and your fingers can press deeper again.

Repeat this tense-and-relax cycle 6 times.

Now go through the same routine in a sitting position, and then in a standing position.

There is a right way and a wrong way to tense your tummy muscles. The right way makes the abdominal wall stiff without sucking in. It feels similar to straining on the lavatory. It is what you do unconsciously when something makes you jump.

The wrong way sucks the belly in as though wrestling with tight trousers, and actually achieves the opposite of the desired outcome, destabilising your spine! Don’t suck it in!!

Tensing your abdominal wall – your flexible ribcage – is called Abdominal Brace and when you can do it easily on command, you are ready to increase the endurance and strength in the abdominal wall with specific exercises, more of which next week.

If you are struggling with the routine, think about straining on the loo, or hold your breath and bear down – but not too hard!

How do I use the Abdominal Brace in everyday life?

Assuming you are not a boxer, then the AbdoBrace is all about providing appropriate stiffness in the trunk to suit the occasion. 

Picture an Olympic weightlifter, eyes bulging, red in the face, cheeks puffed out. That lifter is bracing to 100% of their capacity (and further artificially stiffening the trunk with a big leather corset!). Now think about the same lifter picking up their kit bag to go to the gym. Similar activity, but a very different demand, and a different level of Bracing required – perhaps 10% of their total capacity. We use the Abdominal Brace on a sliding scale from 0-100% of our capacity, according to the demand at the time. 

In general terms, the more challenging an activity, and the more you want to protect your back then the greater the demand. So start to use an abdominal brace on demand when you lift, shift or change postures. Turn it on, and then turn it off again when the demand reduces.

What does your 100% Brace allow you to do? 

If you are the Olympic lifter, then you can pick up a small car, and you have ample spare capacity for everyday life!

If you are sedentary and take no exercise, perhaps unloading the shopping from the car takes you to your 100% and greater or unanticipated challenge is going to overwhelm you and cause injury. If this if you, then we need build more capacity so that unloading the car takes you to a much safer 50% of your capacity and you have a good safety margin before you max-out at 100%.

Next time – “Walking is (almost) the Silver Bullet”, and after that I’ll start on more capacity-building abdominal wall exercises!