‘Wait, don’t make me laugh yet, I have to draw my tummy button to my spine’ said no-one. Ever.
Pulling the tummy button in towards the spine became the preset move for all exercise programmes, in the hope that by activating the muscles required to do so would help protect the lower spine when loads were being placed on the body.
Now I don’t disagree with this notion entirely, it is useful to have some support from the front of the core when you are doing exercises that load your body in a way that is doesn’t experience most of the time, but the issue is that this part of your core (the transverse abdominal) is designed to activate itself, as much or as little as is needed depending upon what loads the body is experiencing, or what loads it senses the body will receive.
Problems do arise in modern living because we do not load the body in a sufficient way throughout the day to ensure that the TrA is being switched on. We know that the lower back is actually the boss of all core strength; when the lower back is in a position of load, the TrA should switch on. When the lower back is weak, it is not surprising that it is safer to artificially switch the TrA on, in the hope that it will support our weak lumbar spine. The issue however, is when you constantly contract a muscle and hold it in a set position, you are actually inhibiting it from correct function. If you are a habitual tummy sucker-inner, you are conditioning the muscle to be shorter than it should be, which actually reduces its ability to contract when you forget to pull your tummy button in and push the heavy wheelbarrow.
When we perform involuntary tasks (sneezing, coughing, vomiting) or we want to laugh, we don’t have a chance to take a moment to pull the tummy button towards the spine. The TrA fires up automatically to support us and will fire up to the strength required by the activity. Think of it as being on a scale, it should be able to switch on in varying degrees of strength from 1 (min) all the way to 10 (max). When you decide it needs to be on at a 10 before you perform a weight lift or a new posture, you inhibit it from doing its job when you need it but have forgotten to tell it to work. And incidentally, have you ever tried breathing properly when you have sucked your tummy button in?! Controlling your out breath will have a much better effect on the body biomechanically and physiologically.
The answer then, is to move and load the body in different ways throughout the day. Horse related chores are brilliant for the body, as they give it loads that it otherwise wouldn’t have. The key is to sprinkle more load and more movement onto the body more often during the day (with neutral spine!) so that your lower back becomes strong and healthy, which in turn will ensure the corset of your body switches on when it is needed. The process of loading should be gradual, so that things that are weak have a chance to strengthen safely. Altering your postures at work (sitting to standing), walking more and posterior chain strengthening postures* should become part of your daily landscape. The objective is always to strengthen the lower spine.
*Check out the article on Redefining Your Core for great postures to do for your lower back strength; and therefore your TrA strength!