For workers who spend much of their day lifting, pushing, pulling, or carrying materials—especially in a repetitive manner—it’s incredibly important to perform these movements properly in order to protect the back from discomfort or injury. Safe lifting techniques, such as getting close to the object you’re lifting or bending at the knees instead of from the back, are great examples of ergonomic principles that help workers protect themselves when moving materials.
The problem is that no one works in a vacuum; in real-world situations, you can’t always avoid working in awkward, ergonomically-incorrect positions. When certain job tasks do require getting in awkward positions, tightening the gut is the best way to stabilize the spine and safely engage in a variety of movements.
The video below is part of BIOKINETIX’s Walk Off With One™ series, and summarizes how and why tightening your gut is so effective. Read on for further details on how to (and how not to) tighten your gut:
How abdominal muscles work as a team
In order to understand why tightening the gut is so crucial, it’s helpful to understand how the abdominal muscles work together. The abdominals are made up of three different layers:
- Rectus abdominis: the outer layer that runs from the ribs down to the pelvis, which helps stabilize the trunk and flex the spinal column.
- Internal and external obliques: located on each side of the rectus abdominus. Involved in flexing the spinal column, bending sideways, rotating the torso, and compressing the abdomen.
- Transversus abdominis: the deepest layer of abdominal muscles that wraps around the torso to stabilize the spine, compress internal organs, and facilitate breathing.
The three layers of abdominal muscles come together when flexed to create a tight webbing that protects your back. Also known as abdominal bracing, this specifically protects smaller back muscles from strain, small spinal ligaments from sprain, as well as the discs in your back.
When you lift, push, pull, or carry something, you have to exert a force on the materials you’re handling. At the same time, there’s an equal and opposite force that the material exerts on you. The purpose of tightening our gut is to make the abdominal muscles absorb that force, because they’re designed to handle that stress.
The goal is to use your abdominal muscles to create a protective ring around your abdomen, almost like you’re wearing armor. A great way to make sure you’re tightening all abdominal muscles correctly is to imagine you’re about to get punched in the stomach, much like a professional boxer bracing for impact. Not only will this stiffen and tense your core in preparation for physical activity, it also helps avoid rounding or arching your back.
Avoiding incorrect safe lifting techniques
When you lift, push, pull, or carry something without tightening your gut and engaging your abdominals, that force goes into those small muscles in your back, ligaments, and discs, which are not meant to absorb excessive force. This contributes to lower back pain, strains, and sprains.
In addition, tightening your gut is often confused with sucking in your gut in an attempt to make it appear flat, or “pulling the belly button towards the spine.” This is also known as abdominal hollowing: an attempt to engage the transversus abdominis without engaging the other two layers of muscle.
Because abdominal hollowing only utilizes one layer of muscle, it cannot effectively prepare your body to absorb the force that occurs when engaging in strenuous movements such as lifting or pushing. The abdominal muscles are meant to work as a team in order to maintain stability and protect the smaller back muscles, ligaments, and discs from absorbing excessive force. Isolating the transversus abdominis will actually weaken the oblique muscles and rectus abdominis and destabilize the spine.
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