by Ashley Newton PT, DPT
“Draw the belly button into the back body”, “lift the abdominals up from the pubic bone”, “hold your core strong”, “stitch the belly in”. These cues for the abdominals can be confusing! Need some clarity on how to effectively utilize your abdominals in your yoga practice? Keep reading to get insight into how to optimize this part of your core!
Our abdominal wall is composed of layers of musculature. Some muscles are oriented closer to the surface (superficial) while others are deeper and attach to our spine. The deepest layer of musculature is the transversus abdominis. The fibers of transversus abdominis attach to the ribs, iliac crests (top of the hip bones), and pubic bone; they ultimately wrap around the abdomen to the back, creating a muscular ‘corset’. The transversus abdominis supports our abdominal contents, assists in expiration and defecation, and supports the lower back. Transversus abdominis has an important role in postural control where it contracts prior to a pre-planned movement. Meaning, if you are going to reach for a can on a shelf, the transversus abdominus will contract prior to that movement in order to stabilize the trunk. It has been established that in instances of pain, activation of transversus abdominis is delayed. When muscle firing is delayed, our body finds other ways to stabilize the trunk. However, these muscle substitutions are not designed to stabilize the trunk. Thus, the tissues can become overloaded by essentially having to do a job they were not designed to perform. This can play a role in future pain and dysfunctional movement.
When transversus abdominis is doing its job, there is a lifting and drawing in of the abdominal tissues. In this instance, we stand taller and our backs and pelvic organs are adequately supported. This is the “Triple S” posture we talk about in LYT! Sounds easy enough, but there are a couple things to look out for to ensure that the abdominals are contracting in harmony.
One of the more common things I see as a PT is ‘abdominal coning’. Abdominal coning occurs when the rectus abdominis fires without co-activation of transversus abdominis. When the rectus abdominis is contracting without the stability provided by transversus abdominis, the abdomen will protrude down its center in a conical shape. We can think about coning as an energy leak where the pressure in the abdomen is not contained and supported by the deep core musculature. Thus, it leaves through the path of least resistance at the linea alba (a fibrous line that connects the rectus abdominis in the midline of the abdomen).
**PT TIP**: If you notice the midline of your abdomen coning in your yoga practice, focus on the following:
1) Maintaining Triple S during Exercise: Skull aligns with Scapula that aligns with Sacrum.
2) Exhaling through the Mouth: As you move, think about the lower abdomen deflating as the belly button draws up into the rib cage. Exhaling through the mouth when you move will prevent breath holding and ultimately recruit the abdominals.
3) Avoid gripping in your low belly: When you maintain neutral posture and exhale with control, you generate tension in the lower abdomen. Maintain that tension as you move during yoga postures. Avoid gripping in the side waist or attempting to maximally contract the abdomen to stabilize yourself. Rather, think about the belly button gently scooping up toward the ribs to contract transversus abdominis. This creates a flattening of the low belly. Maintain that tension while continuing to breathe into the rib cage.
Another common abdominal substitution is external oblique over-utilization. The external oblique musculature is more superficial than the transversus abdominus. Its actions include trunk movements such as rotation and flexion as well as playing a role in breathing and defecation. If the external oblique is doing too much without the assistance of the transversus abdominis, the sides of the abdomen cinch in, and the tissues below the belly button dome upward.
**PT TIP**: To avoid abdominal doming in your yoga practice, try the following:
- When you exhale, place one hand on the low belly and lightly draw the tissues upward to feel the tension created by that lift. This helps you to orient the pelvis to neutral posture and ultimately the ‘Triple S’ posture.
- Notice Belly Button Movement: The belly button draws up toward the rib cage and the lower portion of the abdomen deflates/flattens when you use transversus abdominis. Use a mirror to watch yourself breathe and gently draw the tissues up from the pubic bone to feel the transversus abdominis contract when exhaling.
The abdominal wall is truly multi-layered with the deepest of the musculature keeping us upright, breathing well, and supporting our organs. It is important to be able to use this muscle without overly tensing other muscles so that our bodies are able to move through space without pain or maladaptive movements that can lead to issues in the future! If you have issues such as pain, urinary leakage, constipation, abdominal scarring, and/or abdominal coning or doming, it may be useful to contact a pelvic floor physical therapist to assess the abdominals along with other muscles of the core to ensure they are working together for safe, pain-free movement!
I am excited to share tips and education with you in LYT newsletters to come! Follow me on Instagram @ashleynewton_dpt and @activcoreprinceton_pelvic for weekly content on the pelvic floor, nervous system, yoga, and wellness!