The waist is a very complex and important region. It is the vital core which affects every action we take.
In Tai Chi tradition, It is said that if there is a problem, one should look to the waist for the source of the problem. This is because the lower core of the torso is the centre of power and the centre of intelligence for the body.
All movement should centre around the waist, and all power is generated and directed through it. Even power that is generated by the legs and directed by the hips is dependant on the waist to transfer that power and conserve momentum.
In most people, however, the waist is normally immobilized by tension in the lower back. The internal and external abdominal obliques hardly ever slide past each other. The lower abdominal muscles never contract unless one is doing leg raises. Even the rotatores muscles of the lumbar region don’t rotate.
When I ask a beginner to stand upright and rotate their waist, they will usually turn their hips, twist their knees, and torque their ankles, pronating and supinating their feet. In an attempt to prevent the twisting of the hips and legs, I will have them sit in a chair and try again to twist the waist.
A few people will have some success. However, those who succeed in achieving some sort of dorsal rotation will do so without using their transverse abdominus, Rotatores lumbarum, or mutifidi. Many won’t even engage obliques or the rectus abdominus.
Remarkably, most will recruit almost every other muscle in the torso. They will involve the Latissimus dorsi, the seratus muscles (anterior and posterior, superior and inferior). They will contract levatories costarum (rib lifters) and intercostal muscles. They may engage the multifidi and the rotatores brevi and rotatores longi, but only the parts that connect to the thoracic vertebra. I’ve even seen students trying to turn the waist by using the spinal erectors (Spinialis Thoracis)
A tense lower back means an inactive core. The lower abdominal muscles are unable to contract because the opposing lower back muscles are constantly contracted. This tension compresses the lower spine and makes it difficult or impossible to rotate it.
This flaw is so ubiquitous in humans that when I was looking for what I would consider a good graphic depiction of waist movement, I couldn’t find one.
Most anatomy text books seem to accept a tense and immobile waist as a normal condition of human posture. A look at anatomy diagrams will show that the neutral position seems to be one in which the lumbar vertebrae are hyper-extended. Animations show flexion, extension or lateral flexion pivoting on the upper lumbar vertebrae. The is particularly blatant in flexion of the rectus abdominus, in which the lower abs don’t flex at all when the subject is in a standing position.
See in this animation how the lower abdominal muscles are inactive during flexion. This is because the tension in muscles of the lower back is antagonistic towards the contraction of the lower abs. Proper tai chi movement has the lower abs constantly engaged and active. This is made possible because the lower spine is loose, and the muscles of the lower back are not constantly braced against each other.
In this animation, the multifidi are able to rotate the spine. However, the typical tension in the lumbar region greatly restricts the waist.
Diagrams of the rotatores often don’t even show those in lumbar region. It is believed by some that they don’t actual serve to rotate the spine, but rather as proprioceptive transducers to aid in balance.
Notice that in the animation, below, the Rotatores Lumbarum are not even depicted!
In tai chi, this flaw in alignment, so widely accepted elsewhere, is sometimes called “being double weighted.” This is a term which can refer to the bracing or counter-levering of one part of the body against another. The correct position is one in which every part of the body balances precisely over the one below it in such a way that no static tension is created. The parts of the body are like a string of pearls balanced on end. The movement is easy and unhindered like the movement of a scale.
The power and mobility of the waist, as well as stability, is dependant on the ability of muscles to contract when necessary. Muscles cannot contract if they are never relaxed. So the question we are here to answer is, “How does one relax the waist?”
In order to take the tension away from the lower back, it must be put somewhere. Now it was once said that by simply contracting the lower rectus abdominus to execute a pelvic tilt, one could relieve the pressure in the back, and reduce back pain. But moving the tension to the other side of the waist does not improve mobility. It also does not alleviate the knee, neck, and shoulder tension that is causes by a tense waist.
What we seek to do is relax the the waist and allow it to remain relaxed. This means putting the tension somewhere other than the waist. This is where we recruit the help of another greatly misunderstood and mis-used muscle group, the quadriceps.
Until the student learns to release the tension in the back, and move the weight bearing responsibility to the quadriceps, the waist will be immobilized by back tension, and the muscles of the lumbar region, including the lower abdominal muscles, will be unable to function proper. The release of the back is necessary for developing balancing, agility, power, speed, relaxation, sensitivity, and much more.
Liberating the Dantien and the Core – Stronger Thighs for Stronger Abs.