Ever since I took my first trainer certification through the National Academy of Sports Medicine, the debate between performing a draw-in maneuver, versus bracing the core, or attempting to tighten and firm and generate a rigid spine has existed. And unfortunately, the topic is still emphasized in training culture today. I’m not sure if people keep ongoing discussion out of pure boredom, or if they don’t know what the real answer is on the topic, but this seems pretty straightforward when you apply the anatomy and look at real-world evidence and how the body naturally chooses to react. Observation is vital in coaching and training because the body will give us subtle signs on what we should be doing, and it’s just up to us to pay attention.
Anyways, I’m going to paint a crystal clear picture for you right now, for why bracing is and always will be your superior option when approaching how to contract your core for almost any movement pattern. A draw-in can still be appropriate in some cases, but our body’s instinct is to brace, and we shouldn’t get in the way with that movement selection, or our performance and health will suffer.
To understand why you need to brace your core, you need first to know where bracing comes from in the human body. Bracing is a natural by-product of a specific reflex called “The Valsalva Maneuver.” This reflex is subconscious and will occur whenever the muscles need to exert a strong force against some external object. For example, attempting a sprint, squatting or deadlifting, lifting a rock off the ground, or anything else that is labor-intensive will do the trick. There is a predictable chain of events that occurs when an attempt to move the body with high intensity or effort. First, the Glottis in our throat closes, preventing any air from seeping through. This traps air in our chest and fills our body with more internal pressure to help stiffen the spine and enable stronger contractions from our core. One of the significant benefits of the Valsalva Maneuver is that it naturally seeks to protect the spine by making it more rigid, the way it is designed when you examine the anatomy. This increase in pressure is referred to as IAP (Internal Abdominal Pressure). And according to some of the latest research, any increase in abdominal activity comes with it more potential from our limbs to act stronger and more explosively.
The beauty of this is you don’t even have to think about it because it’s innate to our body and mind. All you may or may not need to do right now is get proper and full inhalation and diaphragm activation to ensure you can load the abs and all peripheral parts accurately, and derive as much pressure as possible from your core. That’s it. Once the exertion is finished, pressure drops, the throat opens up momentarily, muscles-reload and then repeats itself the next time you encounter a need to exert heavily.
But what about the draw-in function and when is it necessary? If you’re someone who may be overweight at the moment, or you currently suffer from specific or non-specific back pain then implementing an exercise progression to master proper vertebral stability of the spine, muscle balance, and dynamic control during movement tasks may be more than necessary to remedy your pain and dysfunction. Here is a link to a host of core drills you should incorporate into your current training regime, and be sure to visit this link and check out the first video for a proper demonstration:
Australian researchers noticed that the TVA (Transverse Abdominus) muscles would routinely become delayed or there was an excessive latency period in people that suffered from low back pain. Recall that the body recruits muscles from the inside out. This is known as the “Proximal to Distal Sequencing” Theory. Regardless of how you choose to move, the core needs to fire first, to protect the spine since it's our most vulnerable structure, and then the rest of the body can do its role in the movement. If the TVA and pelvic floor muscles show up late to the party, then our body will utilize the more surface-level muscles as an emergency plan, and this can be detrimental to the spine over time, and it’s one reason why people could have lower back problems. The drill I supplied you in the video above will train your TVA muscle properly so, please incorporate that ASAP if you are having low back issues at the moment, and you can thank me later.
Also, keep in mind that any movement should recruit your TVA muscles. There are several approaches to get the job done, but the Deadbug drill in the video is very suitable for learning purposes since its natural, slow, and a low load environment for the spine. All of which will help you and your body build conscious awareness on how to move the way were designed.
The last thing I want to mention as it relates to the draw-in is that it’s not intuitive by any means and you will have to consciously focus on it since we aren’t designed to draw in during times of stress and competition. If you don’t believe me go up to a friend and act like you are going to punch them in the stomach. I can guarantee you that there will be no draw-in present, but rather a forceful pushing out of the abdomen as part of the reflex that was discussed earlier. Always train the reflex and make it stronger and more powerful, and occasionally revisit some draw-in work to make sure the deep core muscles are doing their job.
So there you have it. Now you know when to draw-in vs. bracing, how each works, and when each is appropriate, so now go out and get it done!