We’ve all seen those really fit people who we’re kind of jealous of, haven’t we? You know the type, athletic, moves with confidence, beautifully defined muscles and those perfect and flat abs. There seems to be a kind of global obsession with the abs. You see the sports stars pulling up their shirts to show off their abs in celebration of a victory, and not to mention all of those exercise machines that the shopping channels and advertisements have been pushing into family homes for at least the last 20 years or so. I’ve lost count of the “Ab-xxx” machines out there targeting abs. Have a look at this eBay search and you’ll get an idea about what I mean.
Part of the problem that I see with these machines is that they seem to miss the point completely. You get shown the totally athletic people working out on their machines, and a quick testimonial of a “success story” complete with the before and after photos, and they’ll show you the prominent obliques, and abdominal muscles and tell you how easy it is with just 15-30 minutes of their exercise per day. And we all know that they are basically pedalling crap.
If you wan’t your muscles to show, you must lost fat, and the only guaranteed way to deal with the fat in your body is to drink lots of clean water, stay off the couch and move around during the day, and to eat a healthy diet without excessive carbs. No, not a low carb diet, but a diet where the protein and carb intake is balanced nutritionally, and nearly equal yet favouring the protein. Once you lose the excess subcutaneous fat, your muscles will show.
So what are these ab machines good for. Personally, I think almost nothing. I say almost because while some of the machines don’t seem to do a whole lot, I think that anything that encourages you to get off your ass and move enough to elevate your heart rate is going to help you to lose excess weight, and I’ll agree that many repetitive movements if done properly can and will help to strengthen certain muscles in your body. However, some repetitive movements aren’t necessarily ideal in terms of either training or toning, and when done incorrectly can lead to injury. In any case, the abs that you see – aka the Six-Pack (technically the Rectus Abdominus) – may add to the appeal of all of those hot athletic bellies that we are dying to have, yet they aren’t the abs you should be targeting if you want a strong and resilient body.
Defining “The Core”
Let me tell you a little about The Core. No, I’m not talking about the movie of that name with the undeniably questionable plot. What I’m talking about is a group of muscles that provides you with stability in nearly every complex movement that your body does, whether you’re walking, swimming, bending, lifting or simply just standing/balancing. When you see a gymnast, a basket ball or soccer player, a dancer, a high diver, or anyone who seems to be able to move their bodies around in the air with perfect balance and poise, you are looking at individuals with strong core muscles that provide them with the stability needed to move their bodies with such grace and precision.
A strong core isn’t there however to simply make you look good when you are playing sports. Good core stability makes simple day to day movement easier and much more enjoyable. I mentioned in an earlier post about a muscle called the Psoas which can contribute quite considerably to lower back pain issues. While technically correct, the issue of lower back pain can be a little more complex than simply fixing a single tight muscle, particularly if you have had a back problem for many years. Instability in the abdominal core can result in improper signalling in the nervous system, and as a result the wrong muscles can become engaged in movements that they aren’t really designed to do. So when the core becomes loose and unstable muscles like the Psoas and Latissimus Dorso (Lats) can become overworked and place additional strain against the spinal column, pulling the spine out of alignment and resulting in a cascade of problems within the body. Unfortunately, injuries to these other muscles can trigger instability in the core, so it’s hard to say for certain which group of muscles should be blamed for making your back sore.
The most significant muscle groups which make up your core are all internal muscles:
- Internal Abdominals
- Transversus Abdominus
- Internal Obliques
- Pelvic Floor group of muscles
The inclusion of the Diaphragm may surprise many of you, and yet these muscles are all significant in that they keep all of your digestive and waste filtering systems firmly contained and within the inside where your “insides” belong. Each of these muscles also exerts pressure on your insides such that your entire abdominal cavity provides a firm base against which all movements involving the back and pelvis can be stabilised. It is also significant that – with the exception of the Diaphragm – these particular muscles don’t directly influence any movement of the body. They are literally a corset required to keep everything tight and firm.
The Battle of the Bulge
Injury, pregnancy, & inactivity can all result in a loose and unstable core. After birth, many women may have a noticeable bulge in their abdomen, particularly at the lowermost part of the belly, which can indicate that the abdominal muscles have become stretched and loose. As with pregnancy, people wearing an excess of subcutaneous belly fat can also experience this stretching of the abdominals. In some extreme cases, both obesity and pregnancy can result in a separation of the left and right sides if the six-pack muscles. In the case of injuries, instability in the pelvis causes the pelvic area to pivot forward such that the inner abdominal muscles can become stretched while the Lats compress. In all of these cases, when standing straight, a noticeable bulging of the belly occurs rather than the nice athletic abdominal flattening that we would all like to possess.
Most people when they see their belly bulge think quite correctly that their tummy needs toning, and then make the mistake that a gazillion crunches and other “ab-machine” styled movements will flatten the bumpy bit out. While these exercises may effect a slight reduction in the extent of the belly bump, they won’t necessarily work the muscles which have actually lost their tone. Think about how the body moves for a moment. When you perform a crunch, you engage your Six-pack muscles which contract and cause you to bend in the middle of your abdomen. This is exactly what these muscles are supposed to do, which is to say they pull your chest down towards your pelvis. This movement can work however without ever needing to fully engage your core muscles, so I don’t care how many crunches you do, you ain’t gonna tighten that booty till you learn to activate a couple of key muscles within your core. Some of this will also be particularly of interest for all of the ladies who are concerned about the risk of a prolapse or urinary incontinence issues after childbirth, and for the guys who are concerned about urinary incontinence, erectile issues and (Ahem) “arriving at the party too early”.
Reconditioning your Pelvic Floor
The thing to get into your mind is that the body will take care of its own restoration… but sometimes it needs to be reminded about how it should behave. This is especially true of the Pelvic Floor muscles, and the Transversus Abdominus. Focus on these two muscle areas in particular, and you’ll manage to engage and tone the rest of the surrounding and supporting muscles as well. Let’s start with the pelvic floor which is a collection of about 6 muscles which are collectively called the Levator Ani.
Now, I don’t know many people who could exercise each of these muscles individually. Instead they are normally dealt with as a group using Kegel exercise, which are a isometric holds and squeezes of only the muscles of the pelvic floor. If you engage the muscles in your abdomen, legs or butt, you’re doing them wrong. Now, rather than try and describe the correct way to do these exercises, here are a collection of links that might help you to learn to locate your pelvic floor:
- For the Ladies:
- For the Gents:
Beating the bump
The other important muscle to focus on is the Transversus Abdominus (TVA). This is a large triangular bracing muscle that sits innermost in the abdominal space connecting ribs, Pelvis, and Back. When you can suck your belly button in towards your spine without either tensing your 6-pack or squeezing any other muscle, you’re activating your TVA. Two types of exercise come to mind. The first being a bicycling crunch, which works all of the abdominal muscles and indirectly encourages the TVA to kind of wiggle itself into shape with the rest of the abdominal muscles. It is however first and foremost a crunch, which while helping to tone the obliques will not work 100% effectively on the TVA. It is however pretty easy to do and can contribute well to a good workout.
A more targeted exercise is called the Vacuum Exercise. As with Kegels, the Vacuum is primarily and Isometric exercise that is intended to focus entirely on a single group of muscles. You may have seen this exercise done by body builders during a competition, where the body builder sucks in the gut and shows off the arch of the rib cage.
Here’s a couple of links to describe how to do the vacuum:
- A description from BodyBuilding.com
- Another description from T-Nation
- This one has videos from RealJock.com
A final word or two
Now like any fine wine, beer, or a job well done, these exercises will take time. Time to perfect, and then more time to get the results you hope to achieve. If you give up after only a couple of weeks you’ll not see any change, and your core will not become as tight or as strong as you might hope. For some, particularly older people, the results may never be a perfectly strong and flat belly. Persistence however will result in improvements overall, and a stronger core can make a real difference not only to people with lower back pain, but can also improve your balance, reduce fatigue when standing or exercising for long periods of time, and will ultimately help you to stand more confidently regardless.
So forget those crunches (not entirely), work that core, eat well, stay active, and beat that bulge!
- Today I discovered my Psoas (diaryofapersonaltrainer.wordpress.com)