No, my abs aren't weak – they're just sleepy.

This past week I went to see a sports massage therapist (John Stiner of Stiner Massage) to look into the issues I was having with my painful right hip. I went to John because he’s not just a massage therapist; he’s someone who looks at your whole body to diagnose what’s going on and then provides exercises to help you fix the issue. 

John tested my muscle strength in different parts of my body by putting his hand on an arm, leg, etc., then had me match or resist the pressure he was applying. I did pretty well until we got to the abs. I was lying on the massage table and he had me lift my legs up so my legs were at about a 145-degree angle (like in the picture below). He put his hand on my shins to push the legs down and asked me to match his pressure. Down went the legs!

I was astounded – what happened? John indicated that my abs aren’t “weak” – they are just asleep (i.e., not firing). The muscles on the back of my neck are tight and overstrained (desk job, anyone?), and the action of tilting my head back released the neck muscles enough to allow the abs to wake up and do their job. 

John found two other areas where a tight muscle in one area was resulting in another muscle not firing – and in all cases, the one that was not firing is a big important muscle that should be doing the work that the little muscle was overstraining to do. The hip pain I’d been experiencing while running was caused by a tight right iliacus muscle (one of the hip flexors), which was trying to do the work of my sleeping right glute to propel me forward during running. 

The iliacus muscle spoons neatly into the ilium bone
(the big shell-like bone in the hip)

The third area of imbalance he found was a tight outside set of leg muscles called the fibularis longis and brevis muscles in my right leg. These are apparently trying to do the work of my sleeping left oblique muscle (the side abdominal muscle). What???? How could a leg muscle impact an abdominal muscle?

Here’s why: a band of muscle criss-crosses our bodies and goes down through our legs in what’s known as the spiral line:

The spiral sling.

I was astounded by all of this, mostly because I always believed I have “weak abs” and “weak glutes.” But what I was hearing from John is that my core (and my glutes) aren’t weak. They are just asleep. Doing core exercises without dealing with the actual problem – an overly-tight smaller muscle that is trying to do the work of the bigger muscle – is not going to solve anything. I’ve been trying for years, and it hasn’t worked. 

So what’s the solution? Retrain the brain to fire up the sleepy muscles. That requires a three-step process that John taught me: Release, Activate, and Move (or RAM).

First, you Release the tight smaller muscle by triggered massage in that area (e.g., for the iliacus, I massage into that area). This is where the Muscle Hook I wrote about last week is amazing.

Next, you Activate the larger muscle (e.g., for the glute, it’s one-legged bridges; for the abs, it’s leg lifts). 

Standard one-legged bridge.

Finally, you Move by walking around briskly for 2-3 minutes (John said to pretend I’m walking through Atlanta airport in a hurry). Then repeat. Do it multiple times for each pair of muscles: iliacus/glute, leg muscle/obliques, and neck muscles/abs. 

So far I’m seeing good results. When I activate the abs, for example, my plank is much stronger and I stand straighter. When I massage the iliacus and activate the glute, I can feel it firing – POW!

The sound of my glutes firing. (I would like to edit this sound file to just one second, so let me know if you know how on a Windows computer.)

Note: it’s going to take a lot of RAMS (and using my stand-up desk daily at work so I don’t encourage the bad muscle habits that are caused by sitting at a computer for hours) to undo this. I have years-long brain patterns that have learned that the smaller muscles should be doing the work of the bigger muscles. My job, then, is to wake up those bigger muscles and have them take over from my poor, abused leg, illiacus, and back neck muscles, which keep trying to make my body stand erect, but can’t (as it’s not their job). 

So if you have been told you have “weak” abs or glutes, maybe they’re not actually weak – maybe they are just asleep!  I thought this information was worth sharing, as I had never realized this. 

Do you have any body imbalances that you’ve found, and a cure for them? 

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