Why “engage your Abs” won’t make you stronger

If you are like me, at some point in your physical training someone said something like “to protect/stabilize the spine, you should engage your abs before doing this exercise/all the time.”

I know, I know we all want tight abs, six packs etc. So shouldn’t we engage the abs all the time?

NO!!!! Oh my goodness, No. No no no. No No No no.

There are a number of reasons, why especially in yoga, but in all movement forms, engaging the abdominal muscle wall all of the time is a bad idea.

  1. What do muscles do? Muscles create movement. They engage when needed to create the tone that supports the movement that needs to be done. Try this experiment: stand on both legs and observe the overall tone of your leg muscles. Now stand on one leg. The amount of tone increases, to help deal with forces and keep you stable. It does that on its own, without your mind telling it to tone itself.
  2. When a muscle is already engaged, it is unavailable to help facilitate movement. When you tell the muscle to engage, generally you are creating a shortening of the muscle, or a concentric contraction. Now, when you want to move, that muscle is short and tight. It can’t help anymore  because it is already occupied. That means that secondary muscles, or indirect movement patterns have to be recruited to make the movement. So it doesn’t make you stronger, it makes you tighter and less efficient. WHO WANTS THAT? (More about muscle contraction here or Franklin Method here.)
  3. The abdominal muscles are key muscles in breathing. If your abdominal muscles are contracted, you literally cannot take a full breath. Why? Because the abdominal muscle engage as part of your exhalation. So if you are holding the abs in contraction, you will not be able to extend them, which is their natural movement on inhalation.

So, what will make you stronger? There are many answers to this question. Here are some possibilities:

  • Deep conscious breathing
  • Efficient posture
  • Proprioception
  • Adding resistance to movement
  • Moving more

A good practice to do is to observe the body in motion. If you have to push something heavy, what does your body naturally do? do you inhale to lift something or exhale? Can you feel your abdominal muscles moving with breath? Can you feel the breath giving you more power in your movement?

And for yoga teachers, please please, PLEASE do not cue your students to engage their abs and then move. It woun’t make their practice stronger, it will just override the bodies movement patterns. If you want the abs to help create power, draw attention there, but not contraction.

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