Below is a question posted in our “Ask Tasha” section of this website. I wanted this question to lead into a blog entry because I had a lot to say about “quieting your Rectus Abdominus (RA).”
The question: “I read all these posts from women and they just had babies. I haven’t had a baby in 11 years. I think it was me working out my abdominals in the wrong way, building up my upper abs too much through tons of crunches that I was so hard in that upper region that I created my problem, sound logical? I only do the exercises you suggest now for my abs… It’s only been 8 months since discovery and only 7 months since I started doing the two-step Kegels and Hab-It DVD. I’m more determined than ever to keep working my TA and multifidi muscles… One more question, you mentioned I may be doing too much flexion in my routine not too sure what that means or includes can you please give me an example….”
I love this question because it is based on her own observations of how her body is responding to a change in her workout regimen. Body awareness is ½ the battle! She has taken notice of the way she is currently working her abs versus how she used to do it – and with that change, she is noting better control of her pelvic floor and entire core stability! So awesome!!!
But old habits die hard. We all love to work on muscles that feel strong and exercises that we are good at. The problem with this is that those dominant muscles begin to jump in before the smaller muscles that act as stabilizers are able to fire. This is called firing pattern” and when we lose the correct firing pattern of stability before movement we have dysfunction, pain, and/or instability.
Specifically looking at the firing pattern of our pelvis and low back, which is called on for every lift, reach, push, pull, jump, or run, we should see our three deepest stabilizers firing first. These three deep stabilizers are our transversus abdominus (TA), multifidi, and pelvic floor muscles. These three muscles must be strong and must fire a split second before our bigger movement muscles like our rectus abdominus (RA), our hip flexors, our glutes, our back extensors, and more. Without this correct firing pattern, we will eventually see pelvic floor symptoms, or low back pain, or hip pain.
Often due to pregnancy, injury or chronic poor posture, we can lose the pre-emptive firing of our stability muscles. Unless we specifically work to get these stability muscles back, they can easily get lost under the dominant muscles firing over the top. This is commonly seen with the RA dominating the TA. When this happens, our RA’s take over and can wreak havoc on our posture, our pelvic floor, and our low back.
Looking specifically at our pelvic floor, it is as simple as noting the muscle action of the RA. It is to curl your ribs closer to your pelvis, effectively compressing your abdominal cavity, forcing significant pressure down on your pelvic floor. Furthermore, an over-active RA can lock your ribs down, preventing your ribs from opening up and elevating. This compounds the pressure on your pelvic floor since every breath you take in needs room and if it can’t get it from an expanding rib cage, it gets its room from pushing down further on the pelvic floor.
So, yes, you can over-develop your RA. Absolutely! Stopping all crunches is the easy step and the first step to take, but more is often needed to allow our TA to fire consistently again. We need to work on strength and stability in our neutral spine position and eliminate all strengthening in a forward flexed position. Eliminating your RA from the equation will allow your TA to begin to re-emerge. This is easiest to achieve in hands and knees position as taught on the Hab-It DVD, with a progression to the many plank exercises in the Advanced Program. These two positions lengthen your RA and limit its firing ability, whereas the many strengthening exercises on your back or seated with your hips flexed will allow your RA to fire even with a simple lift of your head.
So go for it! Train your upper body in plank position or while holding neutral spine with your tail bone lifted and your TA engaged. Work your legs through squats, lateral walks, lunges, and single leg balance, all with your chest up and your TA drawn “up and in.” Work your abs in hands and knees and plank position when you are ready. I encourage no abdominal work on your back since your RA can sneak in and fire even when you are trying to isolate your TA. So get creative in hands and knees and plank position with arm and leg lifts, Swiss ball work, rotations and more. Our Advanced Program has all the variety you could want and your pelvic floor will thank you (you will also like the drawn in look it will create)!
Finally, when working cardio exercise, be aware of what activities keep you in an extended position, such as swimming, spinning, cross country skiing, and walking/running with a focus on push off. You can add to your routine when you feel you have mastered control of your TA, pelvic floor, and multifidi firing as stabilizers before all other movement…but not until you have excellent body awareness of this firing pattern.
*One last note to end this blog. Stretching is different than strengthening. When stretching, it is healthy to include both flexion and extension within your routine to maximize joint mobility and blood flow to all working muscles throughout your body, including your pelvic floor and lumbar spine. So work to achieve full range of motion of all of your joints through both flexion and extension.
Thank you for this post, I especially like the visual of the RA pulling the ribcage towards the pelvis. I sit a lot at work, and focus on the tripod, but in many cases, this post makes me see that my RA is still really active. Sounds like I need to also focus on lengthening the torso by raising my ribcage.
Well worded article, Tasha — I am so excited about working with you on my next project. 🙂
Tasha, Since reading this and paying more attention to the ribcage thing, I’m wondering… Is it possible to activate the TA if the spine is not in extension? I’m concerned that all the time that I spend drawing in my midsection when my spine is rounded (leaning over a desk/table), that I am using my RA, maybe why my diastasis doesn’t seem to have improved in one year! So if I’m doing something where it is nearly impossible to be in neutral spine, should I let my belly hang out a little more so that I’m not tightening any muscles? Specifically I’m thinking of the awful chairs that I sit in for hours of meetings, that actually have a divot where the sacrum sits so unless I sit way forward on the edge of the chair, my pelvis tilts forward. Thanks!
Do Not let your belly “hang out” when sitting. Although you may have a difficult time isolating your TA in sitting if your RA firing pattern is too dominant. Remember it is a process, Stay consistent with your plank work to isolate and strengthen your TA and wake up any dormant fibers. It will take time to retrain your body to fire the TA before the RA.
When sitting, make sure to keep your chest up when drawing your belly button up and in. You are right, the wrong chair can put you at a significant disadvantage.