Why & How to Activate Your Lower Abdominals (activation post #3)

The Water Bucket Analogy (1)

Welcome back! This is the third in our activation series. Click here to read number 1 (a general discussion about what muscle activation is and why it’s important, with an overview of the most common underrecruited muscles).

Number 2, which you can read by clicking here, focused on glutes. Glutes are one of the most common under active muscles and one of the muscles that has the most effect as far as in the rest of the body, much like, as you will see, the lower abdominals. 

Activation Series #3: Activating Your Lower Abdominals

Lower abdominals are an important element in lumbo-pelvic stability (i.e. making sure your midsection doesn’t collapse into a pile of jelly).

When the lower abdominals are doing their job (with the pelvic floor and glutes) they take pressure off the lower back AND lift the torso up out of the pelvis, decreasing the pressure on the hips, knees, and ankles (aka the entire lower half of your body).

If your lower abdominals aren’t activating – or turned on – or working properly – when you’re moving around you’ll end up with various problems.

Common problems we see from under-utilised lower abdominals (usually in conjunction with the glutes and/or pelvic floor) include:

Lower back pain

Lower back pain is almost always a combination of multiple factors (good old lower back).

One of the most common and biggest factors in lower back pain are when the lower abdominals aren’t kicking in when you’re walking around.

Our lower spine is made up of five vertebrae. That is not a lot of bone to support such a large part of our body. Those mid-body muscles have a lot of work to do!

Unfortunately, our lower abdominals very often switch off, leaving our lower back muscles to do all the work… leading to a sore lower back.

Hip, knee and ankle problems

I read somewhere once that our brain, while it weighs a few pounds (3-ish), because of the way the skull’s anatomy is structured – the brain being suspended in our cerebro-spinal fluid – it only feels like it weighs a few ounces. (unfortunately, when I did an online search to find a source for that fun fact, I could not find one, so we’ll just say that’s maybe true).

Why do I share this fun possible-fact?

Because, based on my clinical experience, it looks like the same principle applies to our abdominal cavity as well.

If we use our core muscles to hold up the upper half of our body, we feel lighter on our hips, knees, and ankles.

Try it –

Let go of your abdominals, pelvic floor, back, just imagine all your organs sinking and settling into your pelvis.

Take a few steps, walk around and see how your legs feel.

Now, activate your lower abdominals, pelvic floor, and tuck your tail bone under a bit.

Take a few steps again.

Can you feel that your body feels lighter in relation to your hips, knees and ankles?

Most of us walk around sunk down into our pelvis, putting so much strain on the joints in our lower half.

We see a lot of recurring lower leg issues that can’t be fixed until we involve the lower abdominals.

Neck, shoulder & upper back pain

When your lower abdominals aren’t lifting you up from underneath, it’s common to start lifting yourself up with your shoulders.

This easily leads to neck and shoulder pain – or your shoulders permanently around your ears.

Or, your upper abdominals try to do the work of the lower abdominals, which leads to breathing restriction, to breathing with your neck, to neck and shoulder pain.

Once again, a tiny bit of effort – activating your lower abdominals – when made into a habit can help a lot of different problems.

Why Do They Fall Asleep?

Why do lower abdominals fall asleep?

Similar to glutes , it has a lot to do with general inactivity – most of us sit around for long periods of time during the day.

Lower abdominals would be important to twisting, walking around, carrying heavy objects, all things we used to do a lot of that we just don’t do anymore.

Our efficient brain says ‘hey, we don’t need to burn these calories so let’s switch them off for a bit’.

Where Are We Talking About?

Before we talk about how to switch on our lower abdominals, let’s make sure you know what you’re looking for.

First, find your belly button.

Then go about one to two fingers lower than your belly button – you’ll probably be in alignment with your hip bones.

That whole area, from belly button down, and side to side using your hip bones as a guide, is what I’m talking about as ‘lower abdominals’.

This will mainly be transverse abdominals, a little bit of the pelvic floor will probably get involved (you can’t really activate the lower abdominals without activating the pelvic floor), and you may even include the lower half of your obliques.

Are you awake down there?

Now that you know where they are, how can you tell if your lower abdominals are recruiting properly?

First things first: can you contract your lower abdominals? (not everyone can… seriously).

See if you can get a contraction. Squeeze the muscles (with your brain, not with your hand) in the area we just identified.

You may be able to feel the upper half of your abdominals – like, the muscles from the bottom of the rib cage to just above the belly button.

If those muscles are hard/contracting, are your lower abdominals also hard/contracting? Or are they still soft and push-in-able?

Either way, if you try to squeeze/contract those lower abdominals and you can’t get them activated, you probably have problems with your lower abdominal activation or recruitment.

Another way to test how your lower abdominals hold up in day to day movement is by slowly squatting down into a chair.

Can you keep your lower back from collapsing forward?

Your lower abdominals are responsible for keeping your lower body upright, otherwise your hips and lower back collapse forward.

(if you’re having trouble figuring out if your lower abdominals are kicking in or not, we are happy to check that for you in a session.)

Now, to turn them on

Once you’ve identified that your lower abdominals are maybe not kicking in the way they should, the first thing that we tell people to do is your good old basic lying-on-the-floor pelvic tilt.

You’ll be familiar with this one if you’ve ever done Pilates or if you had a baby and actually read the ‘exercises to do at home’ sheet they send you home with from the hospital.

Here’s a video I found that shows you the exercise:

I like this version of the video because it shows that the primary driver should be your abdominals, and emphasises that you shouldn’t be using your glutes or your legs.

Avoid also pulling up using your upper abdominals/rectus abdominis.

When you’re starting, it’s really, really common to barely even be able to move your pelvis at all, unless you get help from your legs or upper abdominals. If you find this to be true for yourself, start in the position and just focus on contracting the lower abdominals without worrying about moving your pelvis.

When we show this to clients in a session, we’ll have them do it a couple of times and then hold up their feet to check if they were using their legs/feet at all to ‘help’.

You can try and do the same thing by putting your legs on a chair or asking someone else, like your partner or family member or friend, to hold your legs up. Once you’re able to do that ten times without using any of the wrong muscles, then you can move on to other, more difficult exercises.

Activate While Walking

Another way to activate them is to start recruiting them when you’re walking around.

There is some disagreement on whether it’s a good idea to be contracting a muscle all the time but if, in my opinion, if you have completely under-active lower abdominals, activating them at about 10% when you’re walking around will help increase the tone to a ‘normal’ level of support.

(if you’re wondering what ‘10% contraction’ means: take whatever is a 100% contraction, where you’re squeezing the muscle as hard as you possibly can, do what feels like one-tenth of that; it should feel really gentle and really easy to hold)

If you are a person who gets lower back pain after walking around or standing for long periods of time, you likely have a combination of tight hip flexors and under-active lower abdominals.

The 10% activation in your lower abdominals will help support your lower back, coupled with hip flexor stretches to make better posture easier.

This brings us to the end of the third part of our activation series.

For a quick recap:

  • Lower abdominals are another common under-active muscle in the body.
  • They appear to get switched off because they just don’t get used as much in our sitting-down-all-the-time lifestyle.
  • ‘Switched off’ abdominals can be a factor in lower back pain, hip pain, and even knee, ankle, upper back and shoulder problems.
  • To test if your lower abdominals are ‘connected’, place your hands on your stomach under your belly button and see if you can contract them, without overly tensing your upper abdominals.
  • To activate or ‘wake up’ your lower abdominals, start with either the pelvic tilts exercise described above and/or work on a 10% activation in your lower abdominals when walking around/standing.

I would love to know – how awake are your lower abdominals?

Can you contract them easily, or does it take some work?

And if you know someone who has lower back pain or always carries themselves around by their shoulders, please share so they can check their lower abdominals as well.

Next up… mid and lower traps – the muscle almost all desk workers have switched off.

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