Is A 6-Pack A Healthy Core? Understanding The Concept Of Intra-Abdominal Pressure

The general perception of a healthy core is often misunderstood whether it’s due to trends, societal norms, or misinformation the average person frequently finds themselves confused about a functional core's appearance, function, and significance.

It’s widely believed that the optimal core is characterized by a small waist with a contracted abdomen. However, this couldn't be further from the truth. In this article, we will discuss this key aspect of your body’s biomechanics, which carries substantial implications for the body's movement, strength, performance, and longevity.

Specifically, we will explore the characteristics of an ideal core stabilization, where we first learned this stabilization pattern and the profound effects it can have on your body for both pain and function.

Healthy Core and Intra-Abdominal Pressure?

Before we first start to dive into exactly what intra-abdominal pressure means let’s go back and look at where we first learned to stabilize. We had to learn it somewhere, right?

The foundation of all movement lies in our early development, specifically during the first year of life. This field of study is known as developmental kinesiology. During this critical period, which culminates with the milestone of walking around 12 months, we establish the groundwork for ideal stabilization and movement. The remarkable aspect of developmental kinesiology lies in its blueprint of movement that is seen.

Have you ever wondered how you learned to crawl or walk? It seems to happen instinctively, without formal instruction. This innate ability is a result of the hard-wired blueprint of movement we are born with.

This extraordinary phenomenon transcends geographical boundaries. Whether you are born here in Charlotte, North Carolina or Tokyo, Japan, we all reach the same movement milestones. Despite varying cultural influences or external factors, our movement and development follow a universal pattern.

Now, why does this matter and what does it have to do with our core? Let's explore this further. Interestingly, the skill of core stabilization begins to develop as early as the third month of life.

This aspect of movement is introduced so early in our developmental sequence because it forms the foundation for all subsequent movements. It is during this stage that we first acquire the ability to generate intra-abdominal pressure.

So, what exactly is intra-abdominal pressure?

It is the outward pressure created by the combined action of the diaphragm and pelvic floor on the contents of the abdominal cavity.

This unique form of stabilization emerges naturally as we progress in our development. To grasp this concept fully, visual examples can be helpful. Consider the example of two soda cans side by side: one with a dent and an open top, and the other with a perfectly cylindrical shape and unopened. Which can do you think would withstand greater compressive loads and provide more stability?

Of course, it is a cylindrical can without a dent. The same principle applies to our bodies. When we suck in our bellies, attempting to create a "six-pack" or engage our abdominal muscles forcefully, we create dents in our "can." However, when we generate intra-abdominal pressure, we establish the most stable core possible.

 By understanding the significance of intra-abdominal pressure and its role in core stability, we can unlock the key to functional stability as it was intended.  

Why is the typical ideal of a core “having a 6-pack” wrong?

When we "suck in" our bellies or create indentations in our abdominal region, we inadvertently compromise our stability. Consequently, when we engage in movements such as walking, running, or lifting, our bodies seek to compensate for this reduced stability. Compensatory movement patterns come into play, wherein other muscles in our body tense up and generate additional tone to compensate for the lack of stability. Unfortunately, this compensation can result in suboptimal movement patterns throughout our bodies.

To illustrate this, let's consider the act of kicking a soccer ball. When we fail to generate intra-abdominal pressure correctly we then have to compensate for this lack of stability by creating excessive tone and tension in our hip muscles. This plays a crucial role in core stabilization and performance because it adversely impacts our power generation and increases the risk of injury.

It is essential to understand that maintaining proper stabilization and generating intra-abdominal pressure in a coordinated manner is crucial for optimal performance and injury prevention. By doing so, we can ensure that the right muscles engage at the right time, facilitating efficient movement patterns and enhancing overall performance.

 How can IAP help my pain?

While proper activation of intra-abdominal pressure can offer benefits for various conditions affecting both the lower and upper extremities, its significance becomes particularly pronounced in back and pelvic floor conditions. As previously discussed, when there are “dents in our can”, it results in tension and an increase in muscle tone. This, in turn, leads to increased compression and pain.

Low Back Pain 

In younger patients, this lack of stabilization can contribute to a condition known as spondylolisthesis, which involves compression fractures in the spine. Such fractures occur due to the uneven distribution of compressive forces throughout the spine. In this scenario, the passive structures, such as the spine, bear the brunt of the load, resulting in fractures and subsequent pain. Conversely, if these patients were able to generate intra-abdominal pressure, the forces would be evenly distributed and absorbed throughout the body. Visualize intra-abdominal pressure as an inner hydraulic spring, providing stability and support.

By developing and maintaining intra-abdominal pressure, you create a resilient foundation that promotes proper distribution of forces, and reduces the unnecessary stress placed on structures that aren’t designed to bear the load of dynamic movements.

Pelvic Floor Dysfunction 

Another common condition associated with the absence of intra-abdominal pressure is pelvic floor dysfunction. The pelvic floor comprises a group of muscles located in the pelvis that provide support for the organs above. It also serves as the "floor" of the inner unit, which is essential for generating intra-abdominal pressure.

Traditionally, it has been believed that pelvic floor dysfunction, leading to issues such as pelvic pain, back pain, and urinary incontinence, is primarily caused by a lack of strength. However, this belief is not entirely accurate.

The root problem in patients with pelvic floor dysfunction lies in the excessive tension and increased muscle tone within the pelvic floor. To illustrate this, consider the following analogy: Imagine flexing your biceps muscle continuously throughout the day. It would undoubtedly result in discomfort and pain due to the constant contraction.

 Well, the same phenomenon occurs within the muscles of the pelvic floor. Due to inadequate stability and a lack of proper activation of intra-abdominal pressure, the pelvic floor muscles remain in a state of continuous contraction.

Understanding this aspect is crucial because it reframes the approach to addressing pelvic floor dysfunction. It is not merely a matter of building strength; rather, it involves restoring balance and relaxation to the pelvic floor muscles.

By establishing a foundation of stability and effectively activating intra-abdominal pressure, we can alleviate the constant tension and allow the pelvic floor muscles to function optimally.

How can I practice this at home?

Let's guide you through a home practice session to help you master this technique. Begin by lying on your back and elevating your feet or legs on a bed or couch. Ensure that your hips are flexed to a 90-degree angle and your knees are also flexed to 90 degrees. This position is known as the "3-month supine position" derived from developmental kinesiology. I recommend teaching this position to my patients because it allows for easy sensing and quick learning.

Next, interlock your hands just above your waistline, with your index finger in front and your thumb at the back. While keeping your abdominal muscles relaxed, focus on expanding your belly outward instead of sucking it in. Visualize the expansion of your waistline in a 360-degree manner. Once you can maintain this expansion without engaging your abdominal muscles, you can proceed to the next step.

Now comes the most crucial part: generating and maintaining the pressure you created, while keeping it independent of your breathing. As you breathe, make sure not to lose the pressure sensation you feel in your fingers. With practice, you'll gradually improve your ability to sustain this pressure. The ultimate goal is to generate enough pressure for any given task at hand.

We initially start training at 100 percent because this sensation can be unfamiliar to us. However, as you become more comfortable with the technique, you can experiment and adjust the pressure according to your needs.

You can download our free manual to functional movement. In the manual, we discuss how to properly use intra-abdominal pressure. There are also video demonstrations and visual examples to help you crush it!  


Want to learn more about Intra-abdominal pressure? Click the link to read how we incorporate Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS) into our treatment sessions. 

Denner Chiropractic & Performance | Charlotte, North Carolina

At Denner Chiropractic & Performance located in Charlotte, North Carolina our rehab chiropractic care incorporates rehabilitation, joint manipulation, soft tissue, and dry needling to help you achieve pain-free movement in life and sport. We are more than happy to discuss any concerns or questions you have about your condition or how we can help. Located on our main page or in our resource library tab is a sign-up for a free Discovery Call. During this time we will get to know you and your pain points. Let’s see if we are the right provider for you, schedule your Discovery Call today!   


Denner Chiro Performance

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