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Think of a very young baby. In those first few months of life, we stabilize from a face-down position by raising the upper and lower limbs, with the belly still stuck to the floor.

Later in life, we graduate to moving upright, but we often tend to revert to the same stabilization strategy when fatigue creeps in, for example due to increasing speed, load, or duration of movement.

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

Vladimir Janda described the “ Crossed Syndrome,“ where we have two “X” shapes running between the front and back lines of the body, but they are often not properly balanced. The slant of the lower X that tends to be stronger/tighter runs from the spinal erectors to the hip flexors, with the glutes and abs being inhibited. The upper X has a strong/tight line running from the pecs to the upper traps and levator scapulae (tight neck and shoulders, anyone?), with the deep neck flexors and lower traps/serratus anterior being inhibited.

The Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization school of thought (“DNS”), later developed by Pavel Kolar, uses the image of a pair of “open scissors,” thinking of the scissor hinge as being between the lower thoracic spine and upper lumbar spine. I have to admit, for me, it’s a heavily loaded spring in those scissors! I feel like I snap back into that movement pattern far too easily.

Richard Ulmfrom whom I learned a huge amount during his DNS 1 weightlifting course in May 2018, calls this an “extension / compression stabilization strategy” (ECSS). The ECSS is a stabilizing strategy that has been exacerbated in the exercise world as we’ve overshot things somewhat and replaced the importance of muscular balance with hyperactivity of the posterior chain.

How Do We Fix It?

The important thing is: what we’re trying to do is move to a less primitive strategy, one in which you can keep the horizontal line between your lower ribs parallel to the ground (when standing), and also your pelvis level rather than tipping upwards from behind. When movement takes you off of a plumb line, the idea is to keep that rib line and pelvic floor parallel to each other.

Ideally, we will breathe as much as possible by contracting the diaphragm. In regular, everyday life, this is already helpful in balancing the multiple stressors that constantly activate the sympathetic (fight or flight) system. But that same muscle helps us in a different way when we need increased spinal stability to move heavy things safely.

The Diaphragm is the Optimal Spinal Stabilizer

Under load, the diaphragm still contracts concentrically, but now it’s a stronger level of contraction. The abdominal wall needs to then contract eccentrically to maintain an even amount of intra-abdominal pressure.  The key is to maintain a full 360-degree stabilization. This way, pressure is not exerted at a sharp downwards angle on any organs or the pelvic floor, but outwards — again, in a plane that is parallel to the ribs and pelvic floor. If we were to see inside the body, we would see the line of pull of the diaphragm’s central tendon remaining upright as an indicator of correct 360-degree stabilization.

As with any breath and postural work, this style of diaphragm control can take a lot of practice and may not be immediately accessible to many people, given how many thousands of breaths we have taken over the decades — but persistence will pay off!

Picture published with permission
from Rehabilitation Prague School

Postural stabilization precedes all movement.

The above DNS principle means: coordinated core stabilization is essential for optimal physical performance. All elements of the core system will fire in a coordinated sequence.

My own approach to this, after years of working with deconditioned individuals and seniors, is that a somewhat more piecemeal approach that uses the same musculature can still be useful, for example in those who already experienced the classic scenario of bending to pick up a pencil or toothbrush and throwing out their back, and who want to prevent its recurrence.

We need to match tension to task, though, when the load increases. Now we need to be fully aligned with DNS principles as teach ourselves to keep the core on in a way so that the angle between your breastbone and pelvic bone does not change as you move within the sagittal (forward) plane.

This means that in strength training movements such as the squat, deadlift, and overhead press, we must activate the diaphragm within its full 360 degrees, and keep the diaphragm and pelvic floor parallel throughout the entire movement for optimal spinal stabilization.