What do your abdominal muscles do? Most of us are concerned with the look and strength of our abs, but what is their purpose in the body? Most anatomy books will list actions such as flexing the lumbar spine to bring the chest towards the pelvis, performing side bends, rotating the trunk, and compressing abdominal contents. Although these might all be true, there is a much more important role the abs play in the body that most anatomy books overlook - breathing!
The abdominal muscles, specifically the internal and external obliques along with the transversus abdominis, are the primary muscles of forced expiration--breathing out. These muscles are only activated during forced expiration. Normal expiration is achieved through elastic recoil of the lung tissue.
All of the abdominal muscles attach to the ribs. During forced expiration, the abdominal muscles help to expel air from the lungs by pulling the ribs in towards the center of the body and down toward the pelvis. Picture the image of squeezing a sponge. The abdominals help to squeeze the spongy tissues of the lungs to remove the air.
Align Your Deep Core with Proper Exhalation
When we don't use our abs to exhale, our ribs are not pulled down and inward, leaving them flared out. We are stuck in the inhalation phase of respiration. This causes a negative chain reaction up and down the body, from tight hips to forward shoulders.
When correcting posture, I approach the body from the inside out and from the center to the extremities. In the past, I have given primary attention to alignment of the shoulders in relation to the pelvis. Using this view, I was ignoring the position of the rib cage in between. The ever- important rib cage - with its multiple bones, wrapping from the back to the front of the body, surrounding the lungs, attaching to the abdominals and encompassing the diaphragm. The essential rib cage is in constant motion, affecting the tension and position of several muscles due to our life-sustaining need to breathe.
As you sit there reading this article, I want you to relax and tune in to your body. What do you observe? Your breath! The continuous rhythm of air flowing in and out of your body. This simple but constant movement has a widespread impact on your musculoskeletal system that can either help or harm.
The ideal alignment of your core, then, is to have the rib cage stacked on top of the pelvis, as seen in the picture to the left. If you think of your rib cage as a bell, you want the clapper (the part that rings the bell) hanging straight down. Pay attention to how this gives the body its normal spinal curves.
When we don't fully exhale and engage the abs, our bell is rung up and the clapper swings forward, as seen in the photo to the right. Notice how the chest and ribs are lifted up and away from the spine with the pelvis positioned behind them in a forward tilt.
This is the chain reaction I was referring to above. When your bell is not aligned, it has a negative effect that extends up and down the body. Below, the pelvis is forced into an anterior tilt, the lower back increases its arch, and the hips become restricted. Above, the shoulders are pushed back, losing their alignment with the pelvis; the neck becomes overextended; and the surrounding upper body muscles are overstressed as you have to work harder to hold the eyes level with the horizon. In this "bell rung up" position, the shoulders can also become limited in their range of motion, and often the left shoulder is elevated higher than the right.
Misalignment of this deep core can lead to many dysfunctions and compensations in the lower back, hips and shoulders, which can then be propagated all the way down to the feet or up to the head. You might recall my blog: My Low Back Hurts Because I Can't Breathe!
To sum it up
The abdominals assist with forced exhalation. When properly activated, they help to align your deep core - rib cage and pelvis - which can reduce many common musculoskeletal pains and injuries. Now, please understand: I'm not suggesting you forcefully exhale all the time. That would be exhausting! However, if you don't train your abs to do this movement and become strong in an aligned deep core posture, you may suffer.
So, how do you learn to engage your abs on exhale and align your deep core? Watch for exercises in my next blog...