As you may know, I have a special interest in all things core and I am sought out by mostly women who want to restore their midsections. I am very conscious of the fact that women's self esteem often depends on how happy they feel about their bodies and that the women who come to me put their trust in me to help them. It is my responsibility to keep learning so I get better at my work and to help my clients be in control of their bodies and their health. Luckily for me, its a very fulfilling responsiblity. I find this stuff fascinating.
Anyway, my learning took on a new level of excitement for me when I started taking Katy Bowman’s (biomechanist) Whole Body Alignment course at the Restorative Exercise Institute. And the exciting part about it is that in those 4+ hour covering the core, I didn’t learn a bunch of abdominal exercises but instead I began to understand the relationship between functioning (or non-functioning abdominal muscles) and the alignment of the bones to which the abdominal muscles attach to - the rib cage and the pelvis - and how therefore alignment work can rehab 'broken' abdominals.
So if your abdominal muscles are split in the middle (diastasis recti) or you’re *just* wider in the waist than in the hips, it’s worth having a look at how you carry your pelvis and rib cage through space. Because alignment of those body parts has a dramatic effect on how the abdominal muscles can do their work.
Diastasis recti and a bit of anatomy
All of the abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques and transversus abdominis) attach to the pelvis and rib cage. The deepest layer, the transversus abdominis, also attaches to the spine. They all ultimately attach to strings of connective tissue (linea alba and 2 linea semilunaris) in front of our abdomen. Katy Bowman refers to it as 3 abdominal raphe with raphe just meaning ‚seam‘.
Now, if the muscles didn’t connect to this collagen containing seam in front but to a nice long bone instead, we would all have toned abs but obviously it would also make living our life and growing a new life much more complicated.
So we were equipped with this raphe which, IF held in the right position and under the right amount of tension, can be as strong as bone and can thus be a solid attachement point for the abdominal muscles.
When there is a gap between the muscle (diastasis recti) it means that the raphe isn’t bone-like anymore because it has lost its shape and therefore its tensile strength. It is no longer under the right amount of tension to offer the abdominal musces a solid attachment point from which to move and generate force.
The raphe attach to the sternum and the pelvis which is why the position of the rib cage and pelvis really matters when it comes to the tensile strength of this funky part of our body. When the attachment points of any muscle are in the right place, the muscle can get to work in its intended plane of motion, it gets to be at its intended length and, with regular use, can develop its intended strength. Pretty cool.
Neutral Alignment of PelvisWhen sitting or standing the neutral position for the pelvis is when the ASIS is in a vertical line over the pubic bone. A neutral pelvis is key for the abdominal muscles to be aligned. Let's find it:
Sit down how you would normally sit. Are you slouching? Are you maybe sitting on your tailbone? Can you not make out a curve in your lower back? Tilt forward so you are coming off your tailbone until you are sitting on your ‚sitting bones‘ (ischial tuberosity) and you get a curve in your lower back. Your pubic bone is no longer in front of you but stacked underneath your 'hip bones' (ASIS).
Just like this:
Just to practice finding neutral pelvis, you can rock back and forth and always find the point where you are in neutral. Notice how this feels like.
Once you got this, notice how maybe some or a lot of that movement comes from your upper body. Are you thrusting your rib cage forward? Maybe you even feel some pressure in your mid-back? Try to relax your upper back without losing your neutral pelvis and see if you can align your rib cage over the pelvis.
When I do it, it looks like this:
My favorite part
Now, I show you how I look when I lie on my back and how my abs respond to some alignment changes.
Disclaimer: In any of the above and below photos, my belly is relaxed. I am not sucking it in nor am I consciously contracting my TvA (deepest abdominal muscle) by pulling it towards the spine. What you see is how my abdominal muscles respond to a change in alignment!
Look at my pelvis in this picture. The white dots show you where my ASIS and pubic bone are – now in a horizontal line where they should be.
Check out the dodgy black cross on my lowest real rib: it should be in line with the other white dots. But it isn’t.
When you do it at home and you don't have a camera and white dots like me, you can tell if your rib cage is too far forward when
a) your lowest ribs are visibly sticking out,
b) you are able to slip your fingers under your rib cage or
c) your bra line or where your bra line would be is not touching the floor.
So, if you are doing leg lifts or leg slides from here, bolster your head and shoulders so that your rib cage comes closer to the floor and thus can be more in line with the pelvis. Like me in the next photo.
You never want to look like this when you get ready to do abdominal exercises on your back:
This is far far far away from a neutral pelvis. This is a tucked or posterially tilted pelvis. You can see how my pubic bone white dot is higher than my ASIS.
It’s easy to imagine that the 3 raphe that go from my sternum down to the pubic bone are far from taut and bone-like. You can also really see my ribs sticking out. My abdominal muscles cannot fire properly in this crappy alignment. You do not want to start doing leg slides or leg lifts in this alignment!
The even better partSo now you know that the ribs should be flush with the abdomen for the lowest real rib is in line with the ASIS and pubic bone. No ribs that are sticking out. Yes? Yes.
In this photo I lift my head and shoulder off the floor to lower by rib cage down so it can be in line with my neutral pelvis.
This is a killer move not to be mistaken with a crunch! All my abdominal muscles are turned on.
Alignment matters big time!
If you want to try it yourself, make sure it doesn’t look like this:
Can you see the bulge or ‚bread loaf‘ grow out of my belly? My ribs are down but my pubic bone is no longer in line with the ASIS. My pelvis is not in its neutral alignment. My abdominal muscle are not contracting in their intended plane of motion.
But even when you are in neutral pelvis, you can get the bulge. So watch your body. What you see is the recti muscle taking over. If you have diastasis recti, your belly would kind of make a tent-shape appearance which you want to AVOID and do more of the basic TvA contraction exercises and releases before moving on to the more advanced stuff.
Important final note: Much much more important than doing a bunch of abdominal exercises every day, is to start noticing where you carry your rib cage and pelvis when you stand, sit and walk around and to correct it into neutral. And to reduce sitting and put more standing and walking into your day. A healthy and functioning body comes from using it properly throughout the day.
Recommended links from Katy Bowman's blog:
Are You A Rib Thruster? http://www.alignedandwell.com/katysays/rua-rib-thruster/
Neutral Pelvis. http://www.alignedandwell.com/katysays/neutral-pelvis/
Exercising vs Natural Movement http://www.alignedandwell.com/katysays/side-effects/