The key reason that this cue is given by fitness professionals, yoga and Pilates teachers alike, is that they want you to activate your transverse abdominal muscles to create a support for the spine. These deep muscles lie underneath the major abdominal muscles and require a subtle activation. The transverse abdominal muscles are part of the core. The word “Core” is possibly simultaneously the most overused and misunderstood term known to women, and men. Fitness professionals and clients alike.
And quite frankly, “Pull your belly button to spine” is a term that I bloody loathe.
Current Education Bias
The term Pull your belly button to the spine is deeply rooted in everything that is currently wrong with exercise/movement/sport for women. All sport and exercise information and education is based on research almost always, carried out on men. And usually, young fit men to boot.
“Pull your belly button to spine” makes a huge assumption that there can be a one size fits all approach to activating your core. And this one size is male – based on research on male anatomy and male response to exercise.
This anatomy bias is being actively taught to fitness professionals
A few years ago, I was presenting at FitEx – the wonderful fitness conference based in Auckland, New Zealand. I love presenting here because the fitness professionals that attend this conference are very appreciative of the overseas presenter. And also, I get to see who is who in the zoo. When I am not presenting, I get to attend other people’s sessions and see what is the latest and greatest in the world of exercise. And as a teacher, I love learning.
There was one session, that I was very keen to attend. The male presenter was the international star of the conference, having been bought over from the US. He had recently published a book on his research on back pain and older adults. This is important stuff with back pain topping the list of chronic conditions in most western societies.
I was keen to learn and soak up all the goodness. However, what I heard horrified me. The key findings of his research findings were that getting your older client to activate their transverse abdominis before loading, allowed for more supported activity, which in turn would build the trunk muscular system. Using the intra-abdominal pressure inside the abdominal cavity to act as a buffer to support the lower back.
In laypersons speak:
Pulling your belly button to the spine before adding weights, movement or effort. This will activate the deep core muscles to support the lower back. Supporting the lower back will allow for both more exercise and potentially avoid further injury to the lower back. Activating the deep abdominal muscles uses the intra-abdominal pressure as internal support for the lower back.
There is nothing wrong with this information.
But there is a difference in how this concept works for female bodies.
It has to do with anatomical differences and the impact of gravity.
Why pulling your belly button to the spine sucks for women (particularly older women).
There are very obvious and fundamental differences between the anatomy of a female body to that of a man.
The one that I want to focus on is the extra opening that we have at the base of the pelvis, that male bodies don’t have. The vaginal opening.
You can see quite clearly the sphincter muscle of the anus – the part that looks like a dry date and gives you the function of holding your farts. And the sphincter muscle of the urethra has a similar purpose of being able to control the flow of urine.
Although the vaginal opening technically has a sphincter muscle and contraction… it is not nearly as obvious, or as strong as the other 2. If you have a vagina, a urethra and anus – you will know this to be true.
Therefore the vaginal opening is a susceptible place for downward pressure. Thanks, Gravity. Hence why 2 out of 3 prolapses exit from this opening.
What we also know about pelvic organ prolapse, is that prolapse also disproportionally affects older women. Or to be more concise, women who have had children are now either going through menopause or are post-menopause.
Pulling your belly button to the spine puts downward pressure on the pelvic floor. The vaginal opening is the very weakest place to mitigate the constant intra-abdominal pressure. Pulling your belly button to the spine and then adding movement or weight, will further add pressure downward. For women who have a stage 2 or Stage 3 prolapse, this might be the difference between keeping their internal organs on the inside or having them rub against their knickers.
Standing up for research bias against women.
Let’s return to the story of being in a large conference for fitness professionals, where they are being taught the best and more current research on dealing with lower back pain in older adults.
I listened carefully and patiently waited for the researcher/presenter to acknowledge who made up his research. And for him to educate his eager learners, on the obvious sex differences and what this might mean for those older women who have a level of prolapse. All I saw was an overpacked lecture with students studiously scribbling notes, nodding their heads at the information gleaned. Fitness professionals were undoubtedly already thinking about how they were going to be able to help a whole lot of their clients who experience back pain.
I could stand it no longer. I raised my hand and broke out in a cold sweat because I know what it is like to deliver a presentation and have your peers watching. Worse still, being challenged by them in a public forum.
So, it gave me no pleasure to ask:
“What about for women who have prolapse, knowing that pelvic organ prolapse is even more common for older women? Won’t this approach simply push their insides out, like a grape out of its skin?”
He barely skipped a beat and turned to the students and added – “Tell women to use their pelvic floor.”
A little too much information. A little too late.
Horrified I saw what one person with research bias, could do to the end-user. The client.
All of those fitness professionals were now armed with the latest research to apply practically and immediately to their clients. Believing they would be 100% helping them. And probably not be made aware that for more than 50% of their clients, this could become a very bad day at the gym.
And let’s face it, it takes a brave person to put their hand up and tell their fitness professional: “What you are asking me to do makes my pelvic organs pop out like a grape out of its skin”.
They are even more unlikely to describe to them the consequences:
- I am uncomfortable for the rest of the day.
- My prolapse makes walking difficult.
- I feel like my body is letting me down.
- I can’t do this.
What can women do instead?
Understanding your true core is fundamental. Spoiler alert: It includes the pelvic floor! It is far more effective to think of your core as being a cylinder that includes the diaphragm and pelvic floor, rather than as a belt of muscles just around your middle.
When you hear the cue “Pull your belly button to spine” or “Zip up a tight pair of jeans” or any other belt analogy, I want you to do this second. The first part is always to activate your pelvic floor – starting at your anus. Drawing everything closed and up. After the exercise, remember to allow it to relax as well.
Understanding how to do a pelvic floor contraction in isolation is key.
Understanding the difference between contracting your pelvic floor a little or a lot is vital.
Understanding how to do this all together with exercise can be a bit like rubbing your head and patting your tummy.
But with good understanding and body awareness, you can use that internal support.
And you can get a pelvic floor workout at the same time.
International Women’s Day – Breaking the bias.
The 2022 International Women’s Day theme is Breaking the bias.
I want you to break the bias on how research conducted in the sport and exercise world is not necessarily applicable to women.
EVEolution™ the revolution in women’s wellness is committed to breaking this bias.
In the very first module, you learn the fundamentals of what is your true core, how to do a great pelvic floor contraction… what a difference breathing and your posture have to your ability to work with (rather than against) your intra-abdominal pressure.
And keep you safe.
If you enjoyed this blog…. you might also enjoy these ones.
Just click on the image below!