By: Dr St. Jean

If you were to ask your friends, family and co-workers, which part of their body they focus on most in the gym, it would probably be their abdomen. The magazine washboard Ab craze has everyone desiring the most toned and visually pleasing abdomen possible. There are many reasons why 90% of us have not yet attained this goal, but the focus of this discussion is a bit different. I want to make sure when you are training your core; you are doing it safely, using the proper principles required to activate all relevant muscles. This will help to prevent you from injuring your back, and also create a solid foundation for your future sculpting.

First of all, lets make sure we are all on the same page. Have you ever thought of which muscles actually make up your core? The answer may surprise you. Your core is made up of the following: diaphragm, pelvic floor, external/internal oblique’s (familiar ones), transverse abdominus, rectus abdominus (another familiar one), as well as the lumbar spinal musculature. In a healthy individual, all of these muscles should participate in your abdominal training in a well-coordinated fashion.


To be nice, if you are an extremely fit, highly trained athlete with years of experience under quality supervision by a trained professional, you may gain slight benefit from a sit up. Even in this unlikely scenario, there are too many other abdominal exercises you could implement that would yield much more significant results. But…lets be honest, how many of us fall into this category?

An extremely pervasive myth, which finds its way into fitness facilities across the world, is that the sit-up is the ideal abdominal exercise. This simply is not the case. Although this is true, I’ll be fair and state, it’s not often the “exercise” that is the problem, and instead more commonly it’s the way it’s being implemented. You can’t really say squats are bad because they injured your back.

Maybe a different approach would be asking yourself: “Did I not properly build up to the squat in terms of strengthening my lower back and core? Is it possible I was doing the squat with incorrect form or too much weight?’ You get the point.  If you want to work with myself and learn how to properly active your core to avoid back pain, book your intro consult today at The Chicago Chiropractor in Lincoln Park, Chicago:

Click here to schedule a consult with Dr. St Jean to discover how you can properly activate your core to avoid low back pain and recover your health now!

Despite this popular myth penetrating the minds of most, the sit-up places an extremely high compressive load on the lumbar discs. This is a major problem, as it places you at high risk for disc injury. Trust me when I say, this is not something you want. What makes matters worse is if you decide to perform sit-ups early in the morning, right out of bed. There is a higher amount of intradiscal pressure in the morning, which is yet another factor that places you at high risk for injuring your back.

Bottom line, there are several other ways to activate your core muscles safely (think planking as on example) that don’t unnecessarily place you at risk for developing back pain and injury.


#1: Rethink Respiration

Everyone seems to have an opinion on when you should breath out, and when you should breath in. The most common practice is to exhale with exertion. Regardless of your school of thought, the problem originates during strenuous activity due to the fact that you naturally become fatigued. If you are gasping for air because your energy is plummeting, spinal stability will be compromised and this will lead to low back injury.

Research has supported that when individuals are undergoing challenging aerobic activities, the safe “neutral spine posture” (mentioned next) that should be maintained with all core training, is unfortunately lost. Any time you are performing core training, it is crucial to maintain as close to normal respiration as possible.

#2: Neutral Spine Posture

Most of the time when people are performing core exercises they are told to keep their lower back flat against the ground. This flattening of the lower back is also referred to as “Posterior pelvic tilt,” which is when the front of your pelvis rises and the back of your pelvis drops. The problem here is that it positions your lumbo-sacral spine (bottom of your back) into flexion, and this can potentially injure the disc via end-range loading in flexion.

To prevent this, make sure you maintain a normal level of what we call “lumbar lordosis” or curvature in your lower back during core training exercises, especially ones that require you to lay on your back.

# 3: Properly Position Your Diaphragm

Most people have heard of the benefits of activating their diaphragm while breathing, also known as “diaphragmatic breathing.” However most patients, as well as clinical practitioners, are unfamiliar with the idea that the position of your diaphragm (which depends on the position of your chest wall during breathing) can have an impact on the level of core muscle activation.

What does this mean? Basically you can have a stronger simultaneous contraction of your core muscles (referred to as “co-activation”) by changing the position of your chest wall when performing an abdominal based exercise.

When you inhale, your chest rises, when you exhale, your chest depresses. This change in position actually influences the position of your diaphragm internally. So how should you position your chest? Should you rise it up or depress it down? The “exhalation” position, the point when the front of your chest is depressed is believed to be more facilitory of your abdominal muscles.

To utilize this novel concept, lie on your back and take a deep breath in, feel the front of your chest rising and filling with air. Then, upon exhalation, place your hand on the front of your chest and gently guide your chest down towards the ground, positioning the front of your chest into the “depressed” position. Continue to breath in and out in this depressed position and once comfortable, initiate loading of the core muscles. A great abdominal exercise to practice this with is the Dead bug, as shown to the right.

This will ensure maximal co-activation of your core musculature, which helps to build a strong foundation for future training and simultaneously maintains safety for your low back.

#4: Abdominal Bracing

Probably one of the most controversial issues when it comes to core training has to do with whether or not you should hollow or brace your abdomen. Meaning is it better for you to suck your tummy in, or tighten it in place.

Many of you are familiar abdominal hollowing, and have been told by well-meaning professionals: “draw your belly button to your spine.” Touted as a way to improve your core stability, this has been a universally accepted, go-to component of core exercises for the last decade. Keep in mind, just because something has always been done a certain way, does that make it the best way? Some concepts become universal not because they are great or even effective, but instead because people fall into the trap of teaching and doing what was taught to them. They rarely pause to question the movement, the anatomy or the biomechanics. Unfortunately there is complete lack of evidence to support its use, and beyond that research has shown there is no level of spinal stability achieved by abdominal hallowing. In fact, abdominal hallowing does precisely the opposite and disrupts spinal stability.

Abdominal bracing, which is the exact opposite of abdominal hallowing, is the safer and more effective route to engage your core muscles and stabilize your spine.

Performing abdominal bracing is extremely easy to do. Think about what you would do if you were to prepare yourself for someone to punch you in the stomach. You would immediately tense and stiffen your core to brace of the impact. This is exactly what abdominal bracing is, a term first coined by Dr. Stuart McGill of Canada, a leading expert in spinal mechanics.

When you brace your abdomen, you are simultaneously co-activating all layers of core muscles. This means the entire abdominal wall is activated from all angles, all sides, and all directions. This binding enhances the stiffness and stability of your core to a much greater degree than what would otherwise be produced by the sum of each individual part.

Once you learn how to properly brace (remember, think bracing for impact) then practice abdominal bracing while breathing in and out. This will take time to learn, as it is probably not part of your normal abdominal routine. Once you learn how to maintain the bracing while breathing in and out, you can then implement this technique while standing, sitting, or in any other position for various core exercises and ensure that you are protecting your lumbar spine and avoiding low back injury.


Whether you are undergoing abdominal training for therapeutic or cosmetic purposes, there are various myths, which need to be revealed to ensure safety and to prevent injury. The 4 concepts discussed above is a starting point, and each should be incorporated into all levels of core training.

Go slow and be patient with yourself when attempting to implement this information into your core-training regimen. These small, but significant shifts will become second nature to you eventually, like anything else in life. Go get it!

If you want to work with myself and learn how to properly active your core to avoid back pain, book your intro consult today at The Chicago Chiropractor in Lincoln Park, Chicago:

Click here to schedule a consult with Dr. St Jean to discover how you can properly activate your core to avoid low back pain and recover your health now!

Designed by Reaver Technologies