To activate or to release?

Whether you’re doing rehab or working out, a frequently asked question is “am I feeling this in the right spot?” The human body is obviously complex, so it is a completely legitimate question for someone who isn’t well versed in muscular anatomy. During my time training and watching others get trained, I have generally learned that activation in certain areas is good, and certain areas are bad. Over time, certain muscles become shortened such as your pectoralis major/minor, rectus femoris, tensor fascia latae (hip flexor) and upper abdominals. When your muscle is shortened, it basically becomes tight and restricts your movement. These shortened muscles contribute to poor posture. So when I feel these muscles get overworked when exercising I know it’s not good. Conversely, over time certain muscles get lengthened (which means they are not activating efficiently) such as your gluteus maximus, transverse abdominis and lower trapezius muscles. When I do a workout and feel these muscles sore I know it’s a good kind of sore that also helps me maintain better posture.

For example, whenever I feel my thoracic spine is sore (middle back but more specifically the LOWER trapezius muscles) after a Muay Thai session I am ecstatic. However, if my pectoralis muscles are extremely sore or if my shoulder is hurting after Muay Thai I know at some point my body was compensating in a sub-optimal manner. Likewise, if my posterior leg muscles are sore after doing squats I am content. However, if my quadriceps are the only thing that’s sore after doing squats I am not impressed by my performance. If I do ANYTHING and my inner unit core muscles are sore (primarily my TVA) I am happy. Conversely, if I do ANYTHING and my lower back is in pain I get extremely depressed and then must go back to the drawing board to examine how I performed my movements and find where exactly my lumbar went into compensation. I know I’m making myself sound crazy by implying that my mood is correlated to my muscle activation, but paying attention to your body and how it reacts to certain environments is imperative if you want to maximize your performance efficiently while simultaneously reducing chronic pain and susceptibility to injuries.

What brought on this blog post was watching a fighter who was dealing with a knee problem unknowingly put a TENS unit on his IT band thinking it would bring him relief. However, since the TENS unit stimulates a muscle, and his IT band was already extremely tight (which contributed to his knee problem), he should have released the muscle through either myofascial compression (lacrosse ball, foam roller) or myofascial decompression (cupping). Mistakes like these are all too common; I have had the chiropractor do electric stimulation on my lower back in hopes of helping my scoliosis. While this might have alleviated the pain a little, it is important to note that perceived solutions like this contain a misconception that tends to ignore the root of the problem. Fixing the symptoms is not necessarily the same as fixing the problem itself. Until the root of the problem is addressed, relief will only be temporary and brief. Yes having a chiropractor place a ESTIM on my lower back gave me brief relief, but regularly releasing my hip flexors, my quadriceps, my upper abdominals while activating my posterior leg muscles, my thoracic spine and my TVA have given me a more permanent, self-sufficient solution to my scoliosis back pain.

My gluteus maximus has been sore and I'm happy. Before because of a combination of an anterior pelvic tilt & scoliosis this was previously  a muscle that wasn't able to activate when I worked out.

My gluteus maximus has been sore and I’m happy. Before because of a combination of an anterior pelvic tilt & scoliosis this was previously a muscle that wasn’t able to activate when I worked out.

The throacic spine musculature is also important!

The throacic spine musculature is also important!

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Want a flat stomach for summer? DON’T DO CRUNCHES!

396px-Transversus_abdominis

People tend to get more ab focused in their workouts the warmer the weather gets. It’s understandable since it’s beach season and flat stomachs are culturally perceived as “sexy” (this is a whole other subject I will avoid ranting about). However, a lot of people go about gaining a flatter stomach by doing hundreds of situps/crunches and other similar variations of these popular abdominal exercises. The problem is that these exercises further ingrain postural deficiencies, as well as exacerbate pain by placing excess stress on regions such as the lower back. Moreover, popular ab exercises tend to work your rectus abdominis. However, in terms of specific core muscles to target when focusing on the abdominal region, the pivotal but often ignored muscle is the transverse abdominis (TVA).

I like to think of the TVA as a corset, since it is the innermost core muscle whose main function is to compress the abdomen, but also stabilizes the spine. Corsets were historically worn to hold in the torso in order to emphasize the hips and chest (creating a more optimal “womanly” figure). To me it’s crazy to think that on the quest to look skinny, people ignore the muscle that basically acts  as a natural corset. I’d like to note that I am not endorsing the notion that skinniness is the ideal we should all be chasing, but realistically skinniness is what a lot of  people go to gym to attain (hooray for skewed cultural perceptions of “sexiness”).

Many people tend to have a weakened TVA due to sedentary lifestyles and improper training of the core (focusing solely on crunches). A weak TVA can cause bulging of the abdomen wall which causes the pelvis to rotate into an anterior pelvic tilt thus contributing to an increased lordosis in the spine. From a vain standpoint, an anterior pelvic tilt is not good because protruding bellies do not look good in a two piece bikini.  But more importantly, anterior pelvic tilts aren’t good because they lead to lower back pain, lots of sub-optimal  muscle compensations, and increased risk of  injuries if you are an athlete with an anterior pelvic tilt.

Ever since learning this line of reasoning, I stopped doing crunches in order to solely focus on TVA activation. The easiest way to activate my TVA is by sucking my belly button into my spine while lifting my ribcage. The best thing about this is that strengthening my TVA can be done anywhere. I do it while walking to class, while standing in line etc. Optimal posture requires a strong TVA. Moreover having a strong TVA helps with bio-mechanical performance, whether you’re running, doing Muay Thai etc.  When I focus on TVA activation when doing padwork, I immediately feel like my punches have more power. Having a strong TVA is also key in helping reduce lower back pain, which is a connection that most people are unaware of. So while doing crunches can increase back pain and not necessarily make your stomach look flat, the TVA activation will reduce back pain while making your stomach look flat.

So, from a superficial limbic brain train of thought, activating the transverse abdominis seems like a better alternative since it helps you attain a slimmer looking body. However, from a logical neocortex train of thought, activating your transverse abdominis still seems like a better alternative since it reduces lower back pain and helps give the body structural support to attain optimal posture.