Proper Stabilization and Support of the Spine

By now most people have heard of the term “core” muscles.  This might mean different things to different professionals but at this point, most people would understand that we’re generally talking about the muscles that stabilize and support the lower spine.

lower back musclesThe transverse abdominus, internal and external oblique muscles and the rectus abdominus are probably the more common muscles involved in the discussion of supporting the lower back.  (Like I have mentioned in previous blog entries, they are not the only muscles that contribute to spinal stability though).  Contrary to what some people believe, there is not one muscle that’s any more important than another.  There’s no “I” in team when we’re talking about muscles that stabilize and support the spine!  At the same time, it’s interesting to see what strategies might activate and preferentially target the different muscles and the ones we’re talking about here are definitely near the top of the discussion.

An interesting study published in the journal Manual Therapy investigated four commonly used methods of targeting muscles in the area of the “core”.  These include…

  1. Drawing in of the lower abdominal area
  2. Abdominal bracing (where you tense as many muscles in the area as possible)
  3. Posterior tilt of the pelvis
  4. Drawing in of the upper and lower abdominal area

The authors of the study had findings that resembled previous findings in similar studies.  The first exercise (drawing in of the lower abdominal wall) activated the transverse abdominus the most.  In the second exercise (the abdominal brace) the external oblique was the most active muscle. An interesting finding of this study was that movement of the spine and pelvis seemed to decrease the activation of the transverse abdominus.  These motions did the opposite for the external oblique.  Movement seemed to activate the external oblique to a greater degree.

So what does this all mean?  For many years I would hear of the abdominal hollow as a stabilization strategy.  In other words, people would draw in the lower abdominal wall when performing exercises at the gym and complex tasks as a method of supporting the spine.  This probably isn’t the best way to support the spine in a functional way.  Perhaps the best way to view the exercises used in this study is to use them to “practice” finding and activating different muscles.

Many times I’ve heard the analogy of an orchestra when we speak of muscles stabilizing the spine.  I think it’s a great analogy.  In an orchestra there’s not one instrument that’s the most important.  All of the instruments are equally important, as are all the different muscles in the area of the lumbar spine to ensure proper support.  Proper stabilization and support of the spine requires a coordinated activity of many muscles around the lower back.  These exercises are perhaps very good ways to practise each “instrument” individually.  Perhaps these exercises can be viewed as an early stage of spinal rehabilitation.  Once you know how to play each instrument, finding their role in the orchestra might be the next step!

If you are in need of Athletic or Physical Therapy, contact Burlington Sports Therapy. We treat people in the Burlington, Oakville, Hamilton and Milton areas.


Urquhart DM, Hodges PW, Allen TJ, Story IH.  Abdominal muscle recruitment during exercise.  Manual Therapy 2005; 10: 144-153.