If the load that we are required to move is large (relatively speaking to our strength and performance level), we require a greater amount of mechanical stiffness and tension to complete the task. We talk about stiffness being the coordinated recruitment of muscles together in unison, to reduce undesired movement during a specific task.
Take for example the World’s Strongest Man competition. This is the T.V. show that you would see on late night television in between bad sales commercials for the ‘ab king pro’, ‘vibration trainers’ or the ‘shake weight’. It comprised of very, very large men with big guts heaving and hauling, and dragging and pulling planes, trains and automobiles along the ground with just their own bodies.
One of my favourite events in this show was always the Atlas stones. These were huge concrete spheres weighing upwards of 100kg. The competitors were required to bend down to the floor, pick these awkward objects up off the ground and hoist them to chest height and onto an elevated platform.
Now the very method of bending over to pick up this object required you to flex the spine (shock!!), maintain it in a rounded posture (horror!!), and heave the stone off the floor, gradually rolling it up the body to then dump it on the platform. Not once did these mountains of muscle focus on placing their spines in neutral (oh the humanity!!).
What does this mean? They stiffened their spine and held it in place while they were lifting a very large load. They applied the SAID principles: Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. The strongmen and strongwomen’s bodies have adapted to these specific loads gradually over time, significantly reducing their risk of injury.
Stiffening the muscles that influence spinal movement during certain tasks has also been referred to as ‘bracing’. This technique of ‘bracing’ is an important one to address before it gets taken out of context.
When we brace the muscles running up and down the trunk alongside other muscle groups that surround the spine and other body parts, we increase their ability to complete heavier movements. However we also change the way and speed at which we move.
What bracing does is increase the pressure within our abdomen. If we maintain this pressure during a heavy load, the load feels more manageable, but it requires more energy, coordination and concentration to complete. If you were to hold this ‘braced’ position for a long time, beyond what is required to complete the heavy movement, it can actually put a more detrimental load on the spine than what the load itself, did.
The main take home message from this is, nine times out of ten, you don’t need to brace your ‘abdominal’ muscles when you go to sit down on a seat, roll out of bed, walk up a couple of stairs or pick up a light object from the ground. It is wasted energy for movements that hold zero risk to our bodies. While it might feel painful, it does not mean you are causing damage to the body.
We’ll explore different types of tasks in part 5 and some of the strategies that are effective to complete them.