Lessons from a disc injury, part 2: Abdominal bracing and The Mudskipper
Abdominal guarding after injury
One of the surprising effects of having a Lumbar disk injury was my unconscious, automatic guarding of my entire abdominal musculature. In the acute phase, this was a desperate attempt on the part of my body to keep pressure off of the bulging disk and reduce the pain of the injury. Keeping enough engagement through the abdomen, especially the transverse abdominal muscle, became a constant meditation, particularly while sitting and driving --once those became possible again (6 weeks). Attempts to soften my belly caused an immediate increase in back pain, which convinced me of the soundness of my strategy- this abdominal bracing served to transfer stress away from my back, maintain a lordosis in my spine, and provide active decompression of my vertebrae. I will explore these critical points later in depth.
In some schools of thought this ‘guarding’ might be a no brainer. For weightlifters, it is a standard practice to create a rigid cylinder through the abdomen, as a means of spinal bracing and support. Pilates and some schools of martial arts and qi-gong adopt this same approach. However, in the soft styles of movement and martial arts in which I specialize, excess tension is one of the primary elements we train to get rid of in ourselves and exploit in our opponents. Years of performing bodywork, where my primary tool was helping others to release chronically contracted muscles that were causing pain and bone misalignments, had added to my disdain for tension. But there is too much of a good thing, and in this case too much relaxation is “collapsing”. If abdominal guarding served to protect my back, the converse meant that my training and efforts to eliminate tension in my belly had actually increased the compression in my back! How could I have been so wrong? My constant practice of releasing tension had produced numerous benefits for both martial arts and healing purposes, including increased sensitivity, perception, fluidity, efficiency, and a general sense of calm. It had decreased learning time for all kinesthetic skills, and had taught me to constantly reference the line of gravity through my body, which had greatly improved my posture and bone alignment. But obviously not enough.
None of us are blank slates, and I came to learn softness after years of having trained excess tension and hardness into my body. Added to this were layers of accumulated injuries, especially to my hips and low back, years of asymmetrical training, lost range of motion, and years of leaning over a table performing bodywork, which tends to distribute stress away from the belly and accumulate it in the back, including the back of the discs. In short, global relaxation and softness was not specific enough for my needs. Without getting into the nitty gritty of therapeutics, the point here is about embracing opposites. The goal is to have the ability to change and control the hardness and softness of your body at will, rather than being stuck in any set pattern. In taiji there is often an articulated difference between relaxing and collapsing. I was collapsing: I was releasing tension in places where I still needed it to maintain structure, and not releasing the areas which were critical to achieving a “floating spine”. Finding this proper balance between tension, pressure, relaxation, and structure takes a bit of time and exploration. One of the principles I find most helpful to keep in mind is the idea of not relaxing into a joint, but through the joint.
“This use of the abdomen to decompress my spine and control pelvic position became the initial focus of my rehabilitation, and has remained as a critical point ever since.”
A partial explanation as to why abdominal bracing relieved pressure on my spine is that it increased tension in the front to pull compression away from my back, and then fixed my spine into position with the powerful abdominal muscles, instead of relying on the smaller muscles directly attached to my spine. In this regard, the abdomen is actually the front of the spine. All of the abdominal muscles work in synchrony to achieve this effect, but the transverse abdominis plays the secondary role of increasing intra-abdominal pressure. By itself, this intra-abdominal pressure increases stability but not much else, and unchecked, it can increase compression. But when there is enough internal pressure to give the “belt” of the transverse abdominals some volume to displace the thoracic and pelvic diaphragms upwards, the result is a tensegrity effect in which the synchronous contractions actually decompress the vertebrae. Now that’s what I’m talkin about!
This ability to lengthen the abdominal “tube”, and to displace internal volume and pressure to create a vertical expansion, also provides a key to deep abdominal breathing, which -despite its many benefits- can easily compress the lumbar if not counterbalanced. Additionally, control of abdominal tension regulates the position of the pelvis from above. This use of the abdomen to decompress my spine and control pelvic position became the initial focus of my rehabilitation, and has remained as a critical point ever since.
Lets come at this from a different angle…with a separate lesson which reinforced the same principle.
Mudskipper: walking fish
During the acute phase of my injury, lying down was painful, and standing,even more painful. But transitioning between the two was excruciating. Therefore, I avoided it as much as possible. The least painful method of locomotion I found was to lie prone, create a rigid abdomen, go into a low push up and hover while gliding my body forward a few inches before lowering myself down. Repeat. I liken this to the locomotion pattern of the mudskipper, or walking fish.
It is a pattern I had briefly explored while researching the progressions of movement patterns among our ancestral lineage. At the time I thought it dull and uninteresting and dismissed it as anything other than an evolutionary footnote. But being confined to this method of ambulation proved to me how wrong I was. After a few days of ‘mudskipping,’ my abdomen and pectoral girdle began to re-shape. My shoulders broadened as my pectoral muscles built strength in a lengthened position, and my entire abdomen was transformed into the primary support for my body, transferring stress away from my spine by providing a direct pathway from my thorax to pelvis. I came to regard my linea alba (or Conception Vessel, if you speak Chinese Medicine) as the central supporting cable, which, by creating a bridge from my sternum to my pubic bone, allowed everything else to find its proper position and relative tension. As it turns out, the fact that the abdomen becomes a primary load-bearing structure in such a low posture is well known to our low-sprawling kin and ancestors. Many of the first tetrapods had a Gastralium, a bone or series of bones stretching from the sternum to the pubic bone. Wolff’s law states, “Bone will adapt to the load under which it is placed.” Bone becomes denser in response to regular exercise, and harder with the impact training of many traditional martial arts; a tendon will begin to ossify and become a “bone spur” if it is kept under chronic tension. The evolutionary corollary is that natural selection will favor bone placement in areas of highest mechanical stress. Which is all a fancy way of saying that low-sprawling postures will give you rock hard (or bony) abs. At some point most creatures abandoned the extra support this provided in favor of more flexion/extension capacity of the spine, though usually only after adopting a more upright posture, with arms and legs positioned directly underneath the body, greatly reducing the load on the abdominal musculature (an example is the panther, as powerful as any creature, which often appears to have a ponch: its belly bears little weight and hangs relaxed). The crocodile family still have the Gastralium, and some lizards and frogs have similar structures. We have the remnants of this bone as our xyphoid process, just below our sternum.
What all this means is that weight-bearing was a primary role of our ancestral abdomen, using isometric tension to keep the sternum and pubis from spreading apart and collapsing the body. The beauty of recapitulating this motion is that it strengthens the abdomen as a support structure, while placing very little stress on the joints and discs of the spine. A similar excellent exercise for the less amphibiously inclined is what Stuart McGill calls “stirring the pot” As a practitioner of Chinese martial arts and qi gong, I know about 20 other exercises by the same name- but this one earns it as well. Of course, a low plank is a variation of the same body posture, but options are good, and incorporating movement and changing vectors is even better. (If I had just told you to do planks, you might never have seen a mudskipper. You’re welcome.)
Ever since this experience, the mudskipper and its many variations have become a staple in my practice, to great benefit. Certainly it helps build strength. But, more importantly, it reminds the abdomen to do its job of controlling the forces around the spine and pelvis.