Navel Gazing by David Nowotny

Well I’m just giddy all over myself with this one. My friend David Nowotny, you know David, wrote this amazing article on the whole “pull your belly button to your spine” thingee we hear all the time. I’m so glad he did, because he has the cred to talk about it as a dude with a masters in exercize physiology. Plus, he’s funny and a good writer! Take it away, David!
Back in 1999, I was talking with a trainer named Geoff Neupert, and the issue of ‘pulling your navel into your spine’ came up. It was a hot topic just beginning to make its way around the fitness world, based information from an Australian researcher (abstract here). It was supposedly the maneuver that would disappear back pain.
‘Get down in plank position,’ Geoff said,’ and tell me as you alternate raising one leg and then the other off the ground; do you feel the transverse abdominis (the muscle that also draws the navel to the spine) stable and working–

even though you aren’t actively drawing it in?’

And sure enough, I did.
It turns out that once you have the neurological ability to contract the transverse abdominis,

it would automatically contract when required.

Healthy, functioning people–those not in physical therapy, and certainly those healthy enough to walk into a flow yoga class–do not need the move. Pulling in the navel gives it no additional beneficial effect. It may even interfere with normal function.
In fact, the maneuver of drawing the navel into the spine was only originally used in a rehabilitation department, and only for those who had lost control of that muscle through injury, as a means of restoring its natural function.
(Want more discussion of this? See here and an even broader critique of ‘core training’ here.)
I hated Geof for it. I always like to think of myself as the smartest guy in the room, and he had quickly shown me that I was giving people wrong information.

There is no need to draw the navel into the spine in order to protect the back.

But this was a valuable experience– a critical eye is necessary when evaluating claims from fitness experts.
Here’s a thought experiment: How did cave man manage to drag mastodons back to his/her lair without this valuable navel-in-drawing information?

What about Michael Jordan–should he have pulled in his navel every time he went up to dunk?

Why is it only in the fitness world (in which many movement-oriented styles of yoga belong) that we seem to have this pre-occupation with interfering with our body’s normal function?
And make no mistake: consciously drawing in your navel when performing activities IS interfering in your body’s natural, organic movement.

Why not tell people to squeeze their triceps in crow? Or squeeze their quadriceps in Warrior 1?

They amount to essentially the same thing. Unless you are in physical therapy, there is no need to repetitively and intensely interfere with your body’s natural planning, timing, and sequencing of normal movement function.
Now, it is unlikely that drawing in the navel is actually injurious to people. And, playing around with the maneuver from time-to-time may even help people become more aware of their physical selves. That even makes some sense. But, should it be the most often used cue, heard in every class, for any and all poses?

Silly indeed!

Now, if you are a core advocate, and want to really have your beliefs messed with, read this. I’d love to have a little debate about it.

4 thoughts on “Navel Gazing by David Nowotny

  1. I am going to have to respectfully disagree with this one. As a physical therapy student, a massage therapist, and a yoga instructor working in a PT clinic, I think it’s a poor assumption that anyone who walks into a flow yoga class has a healthy functioning core. Just because a person isn’t in physical therapy (or doesn’t have any significant symptoms related to the low back or anything else), does not mean that they are aware of or able to access the TVA. I think it’s safe to say that in any given yoga class, cuing the activation of TVA (using “navel to spine” or something similar) will allow at least one person in the class to feel their transversus for the first time. The process of learning to activate ones core as a primary support for all types of movement is a vital skill, and it’s actually pretty hard to learn. By this logic, wouldn’t you cease to offer any alignment cues in your yoga teaching?

    I think it’s important to remember that, even in a challenging class, many people approach a yoga class as a modality to function better. Let’s not stop teaching proper movement techniques.

    OH, and believe me — I’ve got LOTS to say about the NY Times article. I’d love to debate that sometime 🙂

  2. Suzanna, I love the respectful disagreement. Thank you for voicing your opinion with kindness.

    Here’s a few questions:

    1. What is the prevalence of inactive TrA’s in the general population? I’ve seen no data, or even research on the general population for this issue. I don’t think its a safe bet that even one person healthy enough to walk into any particular flow yoga class in a year deals with this. There’s no data to support any claim of prevalence. Until we have data and facts on this, I urge caution with making unsubstantiated claims. I know the activation of the TrA is a hot topic in physical therapy regarding back pain–which is where it belongs until data shows otherwise.

    2. Since I was referring in the post specifically to the usefulness of ADIM as a cue, and not to general strengthening of musculature around the torso–would you define what you mean by “core”, particularly regarding it being a” primary support for all types of movement” and “poor assumption that anyone who walks into a flow yoga class has a healthy functioning core”? I wasn’t intending that the two issues be interchangeable in this post, and I didn’t get the sense that you really meant to equate ADIM strictly with “core”; but your post was unclear and I want to check in.

    3. What about all the healthy, well-functioning TrA people in yoga classes (even by your estimate 95%)? They are being told repetitively to interfere with normal TrA movement in crow, down dog, head stand, etc. Once they’ve got a healthy functioning, recruitable TrA, why would you cue the ADIM into its non-advantageous, drawn-in position throughout class? Which leads to my next question:

    4. By focusing relentlessly on this issue, how many other issues are being missed? Ones that are much more prevalent and effecting. Think on these: spinal stenosis, pinched nerve, compressed disc, bone spurs; all of which call for different cues depending on placement of the injury. High blood pressure, joint injury or degeneration, diabetes, rotator cuff injury, artificial hips and knees, muscle strains, bunions, etc.

    All of which I’ve had in classes, by the way, all of which are demonstrable issues affecting individuals in classes. An instructor could just start with all the possible disfunction’s in the feet and move up, joint by joint, and fill pages with cues–before they even cue safety tips about all the possible physiological disfunction’s.

    One reason I advocate yoga and fitness instructors rethink this “Belly to the spine” cue, is that there are so many more valuable cues to give–all of which I am sure you use in class. But this is also an issue of emphasis. There are many more important things to be speaking to in class. Obesity, stress-relief, healthy eating, mindfulness and meditation, living a life with purpose and on and on.

    Of course we give alignment cues in classes. But here’s what I advocate even more strongly. Cue people to pay attention to their sensations. Help them discover that their bodies really do give signals when they move in inappropriate ways, and their bodies feel great when they move healthfully.

    I’ve run on long enough, but I do want to thank you for your reply. I’d love to hear more of what you think on this, and how you respond to what I’ve just written.

    And, I got that you had read the NY Times article from the other day; had you read read this journal article?

    Click to access Lederman%202010-%20Myth%20of%20Core%20Stability.pdf

  3. I like that you’re questioning a commonly held rule, but this one doesn’t resonate with my experience. You can do many postures in yoga without (or barely) engaging the abdominal muscles by using legs, buttocks, arms, whatever, to compensate for a lax belly. For example, the motion of going into downward dog from plank or updog is a totally different one when you lead from the core by pulling the belly in as you go back, then if the belly is lax or on “autonomic control”. Same with forward bends: you can bend from the hips and fold, or you can engage the belly on the exhale to pull the upper body in tighter to the thighs and gain more opening. Even bow pose is enhanced when you lift the navel away from the floor before gathering the ankles in the hands and opening up. This middle region of the body is pretty lazy, especially if you’ve had babies, or sit a lot. Adding the “belly to the spine” maneuver on the exhale, throughout the practice, while keeping a soft belly on the inhale, has changed my body (4 kids and 6 pack abs, no more back pain) and I now use it in all the classes I teach. (btw, the plank move in the picture DID require the abdominal wall to engage automatically, we do this one in class, people are fatigued by it very quickly, maybe because there are no cheats except to collapse/sink the back which is very visible) Thanks for your writing.

  4. Christine,

    Thanks for commenting. Congrats on those 6-pack abs!

    For a more thorough take on “core”, please read the other post on Ali’s blog “Core No More”. If that doesn’t speak to your comment, please comment again.

    I wasn’t questioning a commonly held rule. In fact, I am dispelling a commonly held myth. This myth is less than 15 years old, and its origins can be traced directly to one physical therapy study.

    I do want to suggest this: You are certainly experiencing the moves differently when you pull the “belly to spine” (In research literature this move is referred to as the Abdominal Drawing In Maneuver {ADIM}). But having a different feel or experience does not mean it is biomechanically or physiologically advantageous or even desirable.

    6-pack abs, back health, flexible hamstrings and a nice transition from plank to down dog are not dependent upon the ADIM. The strength of the muscles in the trunk are not dependent upon ADIM. These are separate issues. Other than performing the ADIM, the trunk can be flexed, extended, rotated or laterally flexed. Look at these other movements as the ones which provided the benefits you received.

    Here’s an example: stand in a lordotic (swayback) back position, then pull your navel to your spine.

    See? You can do both at the same time. These are separate motions.

    Or, push your belly away from your spine and then round your low back backwards. Still separate motions. One has to do with your TrA, the other with muscles such as the rectus abdominis and spinalis.

    In fact, the transverse abdominis (TrA) contracts when needed without you messing with it. It is not lazy, it contracts the perfect amount when required–anything you consciously add to it simply interferes with healthy, organic movement.

Tell Ali all about it!

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