Dr Mel Siff on Transversus Abdominus Core Training Part 2

Published: 22nd June 2009
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Dr Mel Siff

An article in a popular bodybuilding magazine stated:

“Inhale and suck in your stomach to activate the transverse abdominis, which
is your body’s natural weightlifting belt. If you learn to use it properly,
you increase intra-abdominal pressure, which will have an unloading effect
on your disks. As with any other muscle, if you don’t use it, you lose it!”

***This ’sucking-in of the abs’ advice to stabilise the trunk via activating
transversus is one of the very popular urban myths based on old aerobics
practice and partial references which do not relate to strength training
situations. Belt wearing does not prevent you from using your abs -
plenty of EMG electrical recordings show that idea to be untrue. Moreover,
transversus may be activated in several other ways than just forceful
sucking in, such as forceful grunting and exhalation (see Basmajian
“Muscles Alive”).

There probably isn’t a Powerlifter or Weightlifter alive who would suck abs
in while doing serious training or competitive lifts. Similarly, even
without an added load and no belt, there are no athletes in other sports
who stabilise their trunks in that misguided way - for example, my Russian
colleagues have studied breathing and abdominal muscle recruitment patterns
in their top gymnasts, jumpers, pole vaulters, shotputters and so forth and
nobody sucks in the abs to stabilise the trunk during their events.

As a matter of interest, the body quite naturally responds to force
production with a breath holding reflex (the Valsalva Manoeuvre)
accompanied by an outward bulging of the abdominal muscles. Any deliberate
attempt to pull the abs in produces a tendency towards spinal flexion,
which is the last tendency that anyone wants when squatting, lifting a load
from the ground or pushing above the head.

Outward bulging of the abdomen is a perfectly natural reflex action
associated with large force production and trunk stabilisation - why go
against a natural reflex and pull in when your nervous system is doing a
perfectly competent job on its own by guiding you to push out?

As mentioned earlier, the acts of forceful grunting and short, sharp
attempts at expulsion of air from the lungs tends to strongly activate the
transversus muscle and we have all noticed how often that sort of action is
indulged in by powerlifters.

This ab sucking-in tale is all part of a whole belief system which
maintains that the abdominal muscles are the most important muscles in
stabilising and protecting the back. Some of us in the past have had very
heated arguments about this, but the proponents of this method resolutely
refuse to accept that it is strength of the back muscles which plays a far
greater role in protecting the backs of Weightlifters and Powerlifters.

They seem to refuse the research of folk such as Basmajian (”Muscles
Alive”) that it is passive bulging of the abdominal muscles, rather than
active contraction of these muscles, which offers added pneumatic
stabilisation to the already massive contribution by the erector spinae
muscles of the back. Maybe they actually believe that huge abs are better
for trunk strength than strong backs!

The article continued: “I’m not a proponent of lifting belts because
wearing one tends to cause dysfunction of your transverse abdominis, which
can eventually lead to serious injury. A weight belt inhibits your nervous
systemís ability to fire that muscle when itís neededónot only for
weightlifting activity but for normal everyday movements”

***This is not supported by research. There are several ways of wearing a
belt, anyway - the fairly loose wearing of a belt can enhance one’s
proprioceptive awareness and act as a useful teaching tool. On the other
hand, the chronic wearing of a very tight belt for entire workouts at a
time, day in, day out theoretically can lead to altered patterns of trunk
stabilisation, but there are very few lifters who ever leave tight belts or
wraps on for hours on end - invariably most lifters who use belts correctly
loosen them directly after their lifts. The chronic use of a fairly tight
belt would probably be more associated with some sort of psychological
dependence than any real weakening of any muscles - and that may be one
reason not to rely all the time on belt support for every exercise

I cannot see anyone using a lever buckle belt set at maximal tightness for
anything longer than one maximum lift, because of the severe discomfort
associated with that type of chronic use.

Very tight belts are used only for the few seconds of maximal attempts and
there is absolutely no research whatsoever which show that this causes any
spinal problems. Nor is there any research or clinical evidence that
“dysfunction of your transverse abdominis” eventually leads to serious injury.

To state that “A weight belt inhibits your nervous system’s ability to
fire” is total nonsense and is sheer opinion - again there is no research
showing this, so don’t take it seriously. It would be most interesting to
hear more about how a belt can inhibit a whole nervous system’s electrical

There is far more risk in telling any lifter not to use a belt for the
occasional 1RM efforts than there is in that same lifter employing a method
which he/she is used to. By all means use a tight belt for those periodic
maximal lifts, but just don’t become too psychologically reliant on belt
security for entire workouts at a time.



Here are a few past articles that some of us wrote for other Internet groups
on this topic:



Dr Mel Siff

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