Anybody who was picked on in school knows what abdominal bracing is all about. Physiologists know it as just a static contraction of the musculature, but for the bullied it was a natural, instinctive reaction to being suddenly whacked in the gut with a fist, football, baseball bat, tennis racket, or, somewhat appropriately to the circumstance, a tattered copy of Lord of the Flies assigned by Mrs. Cormorant, the English teacher.
But for anyone involved in athletics or bodybuilding, abdominal bracing is valuable to athletic performance. Doing it by itself, and not in conjunction with any exercise, actually activates the internal obliques more than practically any exercise, static or dynamic.
At least that's what a group of Japanese scientists found. Their findings suggest that incorporating bracing into your routine could finally get those bottom four timid abs to pop out and show themselves to the world.
What They Did
The researchers recruited 10 healthy young men, wired them up like analog cable boxes, and checked the electromyogram (EMG) activity of their internal obliques, external obliques, rectus abdominis, and erector spinae muscles in response to 10 different exercises.
Five of the exercises were static:
- Abdominal bracing
- Abdominal hollowing
- Prone planks
- Supine planks
- Side planks
And five of them were dynamic:
- Back extensions from floor
- Back extensions from bench
What They Found
The percentage of EMG max value (EMG is expressed as a percentage of the maximum neural drive) during abdominal bracing was a lot higher for the internal obliques (60%) than for the other core muscles (rectus abdominis 18%, external obliques 27%, and erector spinae 19%).
More importantly, the EMG value for the internal obliques during abdominal bracing was a lot higher than those achieved in almost every other exercise, static or dynamic.
The researchers concluded:
"These results suggest that abdominal bracing is one of the most effective techniques for inducing a higher activation in deeper abdominal muscles such as the internal obliques, even compared to dynamic exercises involving trunk flexion/extension movements,"
How to Use This Info
I shouldn't have to tell you that abdominal bracing, let alone any ab exercise, isn't going to miraculously excavate your abs from beneath a lot of fat. What it can do, however, for those of you who are relatively lean but still don't have abs, is build up the internal obliques so they push your six-pack OUT, finally making it visible.
Furthermore, bracing while doing ab movements in general, especially those done on the floor, will make them much more effective. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that most ab movements are largely a waste of time if you don't brace.
Oh yeah, abdominal bracing will also improve core stability more than just about anything you can do.
As suggested in the opening paragraph, bracing just involves contracting the entire core. This doesn't mean hollowing out the core. If anything, you actually push out the entire core with your abdominal muscles. You'll know you're doing it right if, while lying down, you can actually feel your back muscles touch the floor and flatten out.
This is also one technique you can practice any time, while standing in line for a latte, lying down in front of the TV, or while brushing your teeth. Just brace the abdominal wall as hard as you can. Do multiple, brief, really hard contractions for sets of 10. Then do one extended contraction, seeing how long you can hold it for. The possible set, rep, and tempo variations are only limited by your imagination.
- Maeo S1, Takahashi T, Takai Y, Kanehisa H. "Trunk muscle activities during abdominal bracing: comparison among muscles and exercises," J Sports Sci Med. 2013 Sep 1;12(3):467-74.