Flat, toned abs may be harming your performance in life and sport. Hear me out, I am not suggesting that you pile on additional fat on your body and specifically your belly in order to improve performance. Achieving and maintaining an optimal percent body fat goes a long, long way to improving health outcomes. What I am talking about is the obsession many have with presenting a midsection that is tight, flat (if not concave) and moves very little.
- Try sprinting as fast as you can while contracting your abs.
- Swing a golf club while keeping your core engaged.
- Brace your abs and jump as high as you can.
Did you notice an increase in performance or a reduction?
I can guarantee that Steph Curry is not “bracing” his abs as he receives the pass and knocks down another 3. He is allowing his body to flow in a natural way to perform at his peak. Our bodies are quite intelligent. When we train intelligently and teach, or reteach our bodies to move the way they were designed to move, our bodies respond with brilliance.
The industry I am in has done quite a disservice to people. How many times have you been cued by a well meaning fitness buff to “brace your core”, “engage your abs”, “tighten your stomach”, “lock your ribs down”…the list goes on. This hyper fixation on locking up your core to “protect” your back and improve performance is having the opposite effect.
Most movements we perform require the routing of ground forces and expressing them further up the chain to complete the activity. While human movement is quite complex, give me a bit of poetic license to simplify it for this conversation. Climbing stairs begins with force put into the step, that force is expressed up the kinetic chain through your ankle, then knee, then hips, across your torso eventually ending up through your opposite shoulder. Our bodies perform most activities utilizing this “sling system” of lower body generating power using the opposite shoulder in unison. In order for the ground forces to be routed to the opposite shoulder, those forces move through the “core musculature”. If the core is in a constant state of being tight, it creates a roadblock driving all sorts of dysfunction in the outcome and wear and tear on structures resulting in overuse injuries.
Maintaining a “tight core” also disrupts how we were designed to breathe by locking down the very muscle that should be active while breathing, your diaphragm. Optimal breathing patterns require your diaphragm to be engaged by pulling your lungs down toward your belly to take advantage of all the surface area available in your lungs, improving oxygen saturation in all your tissues to enhance performance. Diaphragmatic, or “belly breathing,” enhances cognition and awareness of your surroundings by putting you in a more peaceful state of mind and body.
When your core is braced it sends a fight, flight or freeze signal to your body. “I’m being chased by a lion!” This is also known as sympathetic drive and it can be quite useful when you really are facing a big threat or opportunity, but when that threat is vanquished, or opportunity is completed, it is time to settle into that creative, peaceful, powerful state that is driven by belly breathing, returning to a parasympathetic drive, rest and digest.
We often refer to this state of being as “flow”. When your mind is at peace, your body responds by operating smoothly to get the task at hand done.
Game winning three pointers don’t get knocked down in a state of fear. Achieving a personal best in a 5K doesn’t happen with your core braced. Over bracing your core doesn’t set you up for new records deadlifting in the gym. Your body is super smart and it will call upon the right amount of tension in the system as it feels the effort. Learn to be comfortable with a relaxed core for 99.9% of your life. Train to feel the tension necessary to perform a lift or sporting activity and then allow your body to decide how much it calls upon your core to engage.