“I do core exercises but I don’t feel my abs activating”
“I feel numb in my abs”
“Why can’t I get rid my lower belly pooch?
These are questions I hear all the time from moms that I work with in private sessions or in the classes/workshops I teach. And the answer lies in the concept of neuromuscular control, which is the technical term that explains the ability of the brain to control the muscles.
“You can’t strengthen a muscle the brain can’t control.”
This is my favorite quote and I don’t remember where I first heard it but I’ve repeated it hundreds of times because it sums up this very important concept that I want anyone I work with to understand. So hang with me through a simplified anatomy lesson that involves muscles, nerves and your brain.
A muscle contracts because it gets a signal from the brain. This signal travels from the brain to the intended muscle, in this case, the deep abdominal layer, via a nerve. In a normal system, the brain sends this signal to the abdominals and like magic, the muscle activates, giving you a muscular contraction. If something happens to interrupt this system, then the brain can still send the signal to the muscle but the muscle will never get the signal and therefore will stay asleep or the muscle may remain unresponsive to the received signal.
There are many reasons that this interruption takes place and it can occur anywhere along the path between the brain and the muscle but for my purposes of this article, I’m going to list the common reasons this system may become impaired due to pregnancy and birth.
Common reasons for this disconnection:
-Overstretching of the abdominals muscles in pregnancy
-Abdominal relaxation in pregnancy (letting your belly just hang out)
-Trauma to the tissues due to C-Section
-Pain in pregnancy or postpartum can cause the brain to shut down muscle signals
The result in most postpartum women is that the connection from the brain to the deep abdominal muscles is weakened or absent and/or the muscles are unresponsive to the brain’s signals. So it doesn’t matter how many mountain climbers you do; your abdominals and your brain are not talking and doing these exercises are not the right way to make the reintroduction. It would be like going out with a close friend who you really want to talk to but you go to a Warriors game……there is too much going on in that atmosphere for a real connection to be made.
If I find that a woman does not have this connection to her deep abdominals when statically lying down, then I can bet that these muscles are also not awake when she is doing burpees. But your brain wants to be a good girl so she is going to make your body do the moves by calling in other muscles to take over what the abdominals should be doing. This in time causes compensation injuries because muscles are working too hard to make up for the deep abdominals that are still on vacation. And how does someone feel after taking over for a co-worker that is relaxing on the beach in Bali for a sabbatical? Stressed Out? Tired? Burnt Out? Physically sore? Our muscles are designed to share the load and when the abdominals (and pelvic floor) are not doing their part, someone else is handling the increased work load and is going to get pissed and this shows up as back pain, pelvic pain, neck pain, hip pain, etc.
So my gorgeous ladies, remember that you can’t strengthen a muscle your brain can’t control, so if you resonated with the client quotes above, then there is a good chance we need to reintroduce your deep abdominals with your brain to rebuild your stabilization system from the ground up. I promise you that after this reconnection, you will get more out of the exercises you have been doing and you will be more confident in those low belly muscles. You might also notice some abdominal flattening as a perk.
I’ve always been told that I am a Connector, someone who loves to introduce my friends and acquaintances with each other when I think two people would mutually benefit from the connection…..I am also a Connector when it comes to introducing your brain to your muscles and I promise it is a mutually beneficial relationship.