Abdominals. Spine. Why? and Biotensegrity.
Don’t you think that there’s a lot of mixed information out in the blogosphere about what to do and what not to do with abdominals? A lot of people saying that this or that action is bad, but very little information on what is good and what to do instead of the bad actions. Agreed? I’ve stepped back over 2014 and written very little; however, it’s time to step back in.
Let’s get into the abdominals: The necessary actions of the abdominals for all exercise/movement/life modalities…including Pilates (the focus of the blog). Which abdominals to focus on, How and why.
You see, a lot of focus on the abdominals, abs, powerhouse, core in Pilates and other exercise modalities, while well-meaning, miss the point. Even in Pilates of all styles it’s been breezed over, in my estimation. Yes, even the ones where some amount of biomechanics or functional anatomy education is present. If the abdominals, abs, powerhouse, core is so important…it must be the number one focus with true understanding and a devotion to cueing it both internally in yourself and to your clients. Pilates instructors are remarkably well-meaning, but the focus ends up getting dispersed to too many areas of the body before the most important actions are accomplished. Please let me share how it goes:
The inner workings of our bodies, the mechanics, the biomechanics, is based on chemical reactions and appropriate tension of soft tissues. If we just think on the musculoskeletal (including fascia, of course) system, that means that for us to move appropriately (in the desired ways) all of our most commonly recognized soft tissues (fascia, muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones) must have the right amount of inherent/built-in tension to be able to do the task they are required to do. The balance of and integrity of tension in our bodies is called biotensegrity. (See the marvelous website of Dr. Stephen M. Levin www.biotensegrity.com) A healthy body moves and stabilizes (a form of movement) in all aspects via exchanges and alterations of tension in soft tissues in 3 dimensions. Long gone are the days of considering our bodies as full of levers, pulleys and springs with directional forces along the muscle, ligament, tendon, bone directions, balanced out with 90 degree angles like proper physics or mechanics. The living-body’s mechanics is not like that at all. That is how mechanisms work. We are not mechanisms. We are organisms. Our soft tissue comes in and out of all points in every aspect of our bodies in 3-dimensions. Everything literally connected to everything else with the remarkable elasticity of fascia and more. You’ve heard much about fascia over the past handful of years (it is December 2014 as I write this) and you will hear far more in the future. As analytic tools develop we will learn more and more. With that, take note: it is an inner web of 3-dimensional support that connects all parts of our bodies. Not separates…but connects. A completely reactive and adaptive system of soft-tissue tension. Through this we move, think, digest…everything. When the tension is unbalanced or imbalanced due to injury, movement habits, chemical imbalances and more, then dysfunction occurs on small or big scales Any dysfunction, no matter how small, creates a full-body response…because all is connected. You hurt your second finger on your right hand, the tensional web of soft tissues in your body respond to seek a new balance of tension. However, that new balance requires compensations. Those compensations are relatively unnoticed until an action is required affected by those affected areas. Perhaps from your second finger on your right hand, that has altered the tension through your hand to your forearm. The new tension in your forearm has altered the positioning of your radius and ulna. Not enough to hurt, but when you bend your elbow, there is a little click. No big deal. No pain. Just a slight click. Next week, your neck is tight. Maybe it was the bag you carried or maybe (more likely) it’s that finger and the new click. Then you feel your left PSIS. A little SI joint issue. Then your left hamstring seems tight. You stretch it out. You don’t realize that your hamstring is tight because your left side of your pelvis is not anteriorly tilted and when you stretch your hamstring you are straining it. Your left hip tightens, you get plantar fasciitis in that foot…
And around and around we go.
Life happens and compensations happen all of the time. They must. Still, we must work in ways; live in ways, that afford the ability to return to the most balanced tension. Avoiding complicated compensations that ultimately put us into compressive mechanics where leverage and friction are our only options (i.e. osteo-arthritis). The biotensegrity of our bodies is such that our joints are nearly frictionless. Bones never touch bones. Let’s keep it that way.
Wow…and you thought this was just a “Happy New Year” article! A simple: here’s how you should use your abdominals in Pilates.
How, oh, how do we seek a balance of tension? How do we maintain or return our bodies to quality tensegrity? How do we support our natural biotensegrity? We must seek the source of the tensegrity. In my work, I study the thoracolumbar fascia also known as the lumbodorsal fascia. My efforts are to understand the thoracolumbar fascia…I believe it is an invaluable “source” or center of our biotensegrity.. Never heard of the thoracolumbar fascia? Great! Let me be the first to share it with you. It’s been inside of you all along and it’s time to give it the value that it deserves. I like to call it “The Second Brain of Movement”. There will be far more that I shall share about why it is this, but today we will just start with what is most important for your practice and teaching:
Where is the thoracolumbar fascia (TLF)?
The posterior and most superficial part of the TLF has been on every muscle chart you’ve ever seen, but most people have never mentioned it. (See Fig. 1) A primary portion of it is that while arrow-head you see connecting the lower thoracic spine, lumbar spine and sacrum. This area is referred to as the thoracolumbar complex (TLC…and, boy, could it use some more TLC!) that goes from lumbar spine to sacrum all the way under the ischial tuberosities. Now the complete TLF goes all the way up the spine into the cranium and is three-dimensional into the anterior portion of the lumbar spine, at least.
Our primary concern with be the TLF at the lower thoracic spine, lumbar spine and sacrum. You’ll see why in a moment. (Though it’s more TLC, you’ll see that I’ll refer to it as TLF as most do.)
You can see on the posterior side of the body in this illustration (Fig. 1) that multiple muscle groups connect into the TLF. You can see the gluteus maximus (GM), latissimus dorsi (LD), trapezius (T) clearly connect to it. As we delve deeper into it, we’ll see that in three-dimensions (Fig. 2), the TLF has multiple layers where erector spinae (ES), quadratus lumborum (QL), psoas (Ps) and the deepest abdominals (transverse abdominis (TrA) and internal obliques (OI – obliquus internus)) connect into the TLF. Oh…and the lumbar spine including the vertebrae and the discs. Ah…
So…all muscles (with their soft tissue) that connect into this TLF affect the tension on this remarkable structure of multi-dimensional fascia (with superficial and dense fascia that also includes a remarkable amount of myofibroblasts which actually create their own tension…remarkable!) and the TLF affects all structures that it connects to. Hmm…
A quality balance of tension across the TLF will affect all structures that connect to it and vice versa. Considering that the TLF connects directly to:
gluteus maximus (GM) – leg to pelvis/torso connection
latissimus dorsi (LD)- arm to torso connection
trapezius (T)- shoulder girdle to torso connection
psoas (Ps)- leg to spine/torso connection
quadratus lumborum (QL) – ribcage to pelvis connection
transverse abdominis and internal obliques (TrA & OI) – ribcage to pelvis connection
Lumbar Spine (and the entire spine up to the skull)
And that means that all structures that connect to those affect and create effects upon the TLF and vice versa…
THIS IS MIGHTY IMPORTANT!
And why do you care? As a Pilates practitioner why should you care? What does this mean to you? (And why do I devote my entire life the TLF and helping people understand it?!) Because when you make a lower TrA and OI connection, then there is a lateral pull on the TLF. That lateral pull/tension is resisted by the TLF (as all soft tissues resist expansion). This pull against each other creates a stiffness of the lumbar spine. Now, that word “stiffness” is desirable in the biomechanics world though in the fitness world it is considered a bad thing. Stiffness in biomechanics means support, stability, integrity. Something that the lumbar spine often lacks in modern world because the balance of tension is off/askew in modern humans. This is a desirable stiffness. This now intrinsic support (stiffness) from the TLF working against and thereby with the lower deeper abdominals (TrA and OI) allows all other structures that are connected to the lumbar spine to be efficient in either assisting in stabilization or mobilization of the lumbar spine. That means that the ES, QL and Ps can all be more efficient in their jobs! They can either help stabilize or mobilize! GM, LD and T will all be more efficient, too. We want these muscles to work more! We want them to work efficiently!
Often in Pilates we hear “don’t use your glutes”, “don’t use your back muscles” however, that’s not what is needed. We need to use them…but we must set up an environment where the muscles can just work naturally. We must create an physical scenario where our muscles work the way that they are meant to. And not just our muscles…all of the systems in our bodies. I’ll say that statement again as I have coined it and will use it time and again: we must create an environment where all parts of our bodies work naturally. At least that’s how I see it.
Now, all in all, we’ve got to care about space in between each vertebra. We have to take care of our nervous system. (That takes a lot: nutrition, rest, good emotional state and movement.) And what creates that space? Part of it is by the intervertebral discs. And what maintains the discs size and cushiness? Tensegrity (this balance of tension of soft tissues) and movement. (Movement? You thought I was going to say hydration.) What does movement? Directly: Muscles. (Indirectly, a lot of other things.) We care about keeping space between vertebrae for more movement of the spine and, quite importantly, so that the nerve endings that come from the spinal cord can leave easily through the foramen. Hydration of discs only happens with movement as the superior and inferior surfaces of the discs are connected to the vertebrae above and below, respectively. Those vertebrae have a bit of cartilage on these superior and inferior faces that through movement release fluid that is absorbed into the disc. That is how discs get hydrated. All parts of the disc must receive hydration which is one great reason why we need balanced movement of each vertebra segment appropriate to its design (i.e. lumbar vertebral joints can sustain only a limited amount of rotation without damaging shear forces whereas cervical vertebrae allow for and require far more rotation without damage…all within limits, of course). We need forward flexion, back extension, rotation and lateral flexion/side-bending of all joints of the spine. All while maintaining a maximum amount of space between the vertebrae, yet still affording that movement.
That’s mighty refined movement: move while maintaining space. And it has to happen in a flash..all of the time. It’s going to take a lot of practice with the right “Order of Operations” to be able to do that in our modern world that truly does not prepare us to move appropriately. Sitting and looking at a computer or handheld device does not a mover make. Even as a Pilates teacher…there’s got to be more! So…we must practice this sort of movement; this coordination. And that is what Pilates is all about. At least that is how I see it.
Again…how does this apply to you?
When you ask your client to pull her abdominals in…what are you doing and why? How? Which ones? It’s got to be the lower, deep abdominals. The ones that connect to the TLF. So…we need to encourage a lower deep abdominal connection. Transverse abdominis and internal obliques. The lower ones will connect to the TLF. Not the upper. The upper that so many Pilates teachers get caught up in with “close the ribs”, “soften the ribs”, “knit the ribs together”, “melt the ribs”…that is primarily external obliques (OE – obliquus externus). Quite important, but they are secondary to the primary actions of the TrA and OI which are what connect to the TLF that set off a remarkable chain reaction of tension across the TLF that supports the entire body! In a over-simplified statement: the upper abdominal fibers, the OE and rectus abdominis (RA) will be informed by the lower deeper abdominals.
Try this: on yourself, with your abdominals released, place your finger tips on your hip points; your ASIS. Wrap your fingers toward the inner side of them as though you can get in there and feel the inner part of the bone as though you could get to your iliacus (go lightly though and rather superficial) Lightly pull your abdominals in. Do you feel a tug of the tissues under your fingers? Like a theraband/elastic band pulling across from hip point to hip point? This must be accomplished with a stable pelvis; without any movement of your pelvis. If so, that is TLF. Of course, all muscles work all of the time and you cannot isolate any one muscle (you can not isolate any one muscle), but you can do actions that highlight a muscle. And there is TLF. If you don’t feel that tug or your pelvis moved…fear not. That just means that this has to become your focus. How? Not by sitting there with your fingers on your hips trying to make it happen. Rather, when you do your Pilates work, you must seek out those muscles. You will feel them below your navel from hip point to hip point all the way down to your pubis. Indeed, TrA is also above your navel and across your sides to the TLF, but this lower section that connects to the TLF is where you will concentrate your action.
That’s the first action: deepen your lower abdominals. And why? To make a great back muscle connection. Deepen your lower abdominals and separate your lower back bones. Remember this article: “Lift Your Lower Backbones Like Your Life Depends On It…Because It Does“? If we get that horizontal/lateral tension on the TLF from the deeper lower abdominals (TrA and OI) and the vertical-like tension on the TLF from the muscles of the lumbar spine (ES, QL, Ps) and eventually upward throughout the entire spine, then the tension across the TLF will afford more efficient GM, LD and T and all that they connect with…which means all aspects of our body can be more mobile and able! This is what it’s about!
Well then…how must you cue and “use” the abdominals (which is why I am writing this and why you are reading this):
“Pull your lower abdominals in and up and lift your lower back bones apart” in all exercises at all times.
You see there is no “navel to spine”. That wouldn’t make the correct lateral tension on the TLF
There is no “scoop your abdominals in and up”. That also won’t make the appropriate tension. Though it is a reasonable image when the spine is in light forward flexion. And images are really important. But…it misses the important action of the spinal soft tissues.
There is “no close the ribs”, “soften the ribs”, “knit the ribs” as those would also skip this vital tension on the TLF and always hinders the diaphragm from working efficiently (remember “The Lock Down: Abdominals…How Much and Which Ones to Engage?“)
It’s likely less stringent and deep feeling at first than you had thought. It’s a muscular, soft tissue and mental coordination that will be light, at first, and develop into something powerfully strong while always remarkably mobile. Like all things: if you get it right away, you simply haven’t gotten it. It takes time to develop. And once it does, freedom of movement with great strength is the result!
How will you develop this? Practice in every single exercise that you do by seeking out that deeper set of lower abdominals on both side (right and left or right left and center) and follow that connection with an upward lift of the lumbar spine. Then keep that going: deepen lower abdominals + lift lumbar spine + deepen lower abdominals + lift lumbar spine + deepen…+ lift…
Until the coordination develops and you delight in the seek to maintain it.
Once the deeper lower abdominals and lumbar muscles pull on that TLF so well that the TLF has great tension to be able to affect those muscles that come at an angle (GM, LD, T)…the entire body can gain efficiency.
This is different than what you’re used to. This is refined. With that, this will be frustrating at first…but will be more satisfying than you could imagine later on. This is the way to achieve your and your clients’ physical goals. First things first. And these are them.
In every single exercise at every level of proficiency: pull your lower deeper abdominals in and up and separate your lower back bones…and all back bones. If you or your client cannot make that lower deeper abdominal connection in an exercise…it is simply not the right exercise for you or your client. That means either a modification is required or eliminate it until that connection develops. Without the lower deeper abdominals, you won’t get to the TLF, the lumbar muscles…and the rest of your body. Efficiency is the name of the game. Nature is efficient. Why wouldn’t we work the way we were designed? Let’s redevelop our natural biotensegrity and our natural coordination or as I refer to it: order of operations. That’s what it’s all about. We’re setting up and environment where all systems of our bodies work naturally. With movement…that means the lower deeper abdominals for the TLF for the lumbar muscles for the rest. Enjoy!
Now…that was a considerable brain-ful. Take your time. Reread. Seek to understand. Practice. And, as always, reach out when you have questions. info@TheVerticalWorkshop.com
– Shari Berkowitz
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