If you’ve ever taken a Pilates class (or maybe even yoga or group fitness), then you’ve likely heard the instructor telling you to “draw your navel towards your spine” at some point during the workout.
This cue is generally taught with the intention of activating the transverse abdominis (TVA), which is one of our deepest abdominal muscles. This muscle is widely believed to be an important spinal stabilizer, so by “drawing in”, the idea is that we activate these muscles to train our core and protect our spine from potential injury as we move.
While it’s hard to say there are any outright bad or dangerous cues, there are definitely some cues that are better than others, and, in my experience training thousands of clients for over a decade, I can say that this cue is sub par at best when it comes to getting clients to activate all necessary muscles and avoid potential core dysfunction. This is why you will rarely hear this cue on KORE | KINECT.
Here are the two main reasons this cue is not ideal:
Your core functions like a can: the diaphragm is the top, the pelvic floor is the bottom, and the TVA wraps 360 degrees around the whole thing. This is why it’s essentially impossible to work the TVA in isolation as it inevitably works together with the diaphragm and the pelvic floor musculature.
When you simply "draw your navel towards your spine”, it puts too much pressure in the middle. Think about squeezing a juice box in the center - that puts a lot of pressure up on your diaphragm and down on your pelvic floor, which stops both from functioning like they should.
If we want to truly help people, we have to look at how the system works together, not just in isolation. Learning to tap into this core unit should be the first step to every core-related exercise, overtime becoming more and more second nature. You can learn and practice how to do this HERE.
LOWER AB ENGAGEMENT:
Most clients struggle with feeling their lower abs activate. This is partly because research has shown that we feel more nerve endings in the upper abs, though it’s also often due to some degree of core dysfunction. Using the cue of drawing the navel to the spine usually causes unwanted downward pressure on the pelvic floor. You might notice this as a protrusion of the lower stomach, otherwise commonly known as a lower belly “pooch”. In order to learn to engage these lower fibers of the transverse abs and the piramidalis muscle, we need to learn to draw the navel “in and UP”, instead of just drawing the navel in.
Think of the different chakras or energy bundles in the body. If you start by drawing the belly button in, you will completely bypass the foundational chakras. Instead, imagine gathering from the root chakra (the pelvic floor) and drawing that energy up through the body collecting all of the other chakras along with it all the way through the crown of your head.
Here are some better cues to use instead:
“EXHALE”: Exhaling reflexively contracts the TVA and pelvic floor muscles. So, simply cueing when to exhale (ie on the hardest part of the exercise) will much more effectively allow clients to contract their TVA, diaphragm, pelvic floor and even oblique muscles in a more functional manner than cueing to “pull your abs in towards your spine”. When you exhale, think of expelling heat from your mouth as if you were fogging up a window with your breath and keep going until there is no more air in the lungs. For a full tutorial on breathing and deep core engagement, check out this video.
“WRAP THE TRUNK LIKE A CORSET”: I understand this cue can be slightly gender biased, but I think the imagery helps clients understand that the TVA does not engage just the front or the sides of the abs, but rather 360 degrees around the trunk.
“IMAGINE ZIPPING UP A VERY TIGHT PAIR OF PANTS”: Specifically for lower ab and pelvic floor engagement, this cue is key. In functional anatomy, the piramidalis muscle assists in pelvic floor activation and lifting the pubic bone towards the navel. So, imagining “zipping” the pubic bone to the navel (as you exhale) should go a lot further to ensure proper pelvic floor activation in core work.