Ab-dominant and Ab-sessed
Society is seemingly obsessed by the body beautiful and the aesthetic of the flat stomach. As a 52 year old post menopausal woman, it is not something that I lose sleep over (although I have bloating/IBS issues which I wrote about in a previous blog post which you can read here.) I am in the fitness industry and the imagery portrayed of sculpted bodies, crop tops and flat stomachs is, in my view, little short of scandalous. It is promoting an often unattainable look and crucially one that is also unnecessary. Just as bad, notions of clean eating (don’t even get me started on that one), and other forms of pseudo dieting are promoted as the way to achieve this aesthetic
Why are we so obsessed with flat stomachs? Clearly it is partly due to a general obsession with thinness. In an world of food plenty with a tendency for us all to gain weight, somehow that leads us to worship at the alter of thinness. It is commonplace now to hear about the perils of obesity, and more so than the effects of other lifestyle choices such as not taking exercise, not moving about enough, not having enough sleep.
However, the health related opposite of obesity is not thinness. It is a lack of obesity.
It feels tediously neo-puritanical all this concern with thinness. I myself watch my weight and so must declare an interest. Why aren’t we all embracing excess? Sex is still ok but drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, food, smoking – forget it these days! Even though these things are so much more fun than abstinence. Has a clean living lifestyle has replaced religion in the 21st Century?
None of this really addresses why the abs are so central to our body obsession. Maybe the answer lies in the fact that they are actually central – the position in our bodies. Beyond that I have no theories. After all , there are around 650 named muscles in the human body, although this number is disputed and may be higher. Why do we worship the abs? Perhaps instead we could obsess over the Deltoid of the shoulder?
Best to ask a Sociologist, or a Historian. After all, it wasn’t always this way. The painting below by Peter Paul Reubens was completed in 1636 and hangs in the National Gallery in London. It depicts the Judgement of Paris. Paris sits accompanied by Mercury looking at the Goddesses Minerva, Juno and Venus. Reubens’ portrayal of the three Goddesses represented the ideal of feminine beauty. Their voluptuous fleshy bodies are a remarkable contrast to the contemporary ideal of in North America and Europe.
What are the Abdominal Muscles actually for?
Have we forgotten that the abdominals are muscles with a muscular job to do?
This is important because we seem to perceive the abs as a thing to look at and admire. We have objectified them.
There are four lots of abdominal muscles:
- the “six pack” , known as the Rectus Abdominus,
- the deep abdominals, lying underneath the Rectus , the Transverse Abdominus
- the waistline muscles at the side of the trunk, the External and Internal Obliques
They attach (variously) to the rib cage at the top and the pelvis at the bottom. Due to the presence of the organs of the body the are no bones in the body cavity and therefore these stomach muscles are supported in a sheet of thick fascia, shown in white in the picture) known as the rectus sheath.
Their functions are:
- to assist in maintaining the structural integrity of the trunk. They help to hold you up and form the shape of the trunk. They share this function with other muscles
- to protect the internal organs
- to help to bend the spine forwards and sideways, rotate the spine and support the spine when it bends backwards
- to stabilise the body during movement. This fundamental abdominal function that is often referred to as “core strength”
What else is lying around in your midriff?
This enormous muscle separates the heart and lungs from the other internal organs. It is the main muscle of breathing. If the abdominals are too tight or being sucked in, the diaphragm is compromised and so is breathing. This is because, in order for the diaphragm to contract and drive inhalation, there has to be reciprocal relaxation of the muscles that assist exhalation and this is (partly) the abdominals. If the abs are really tight they won’t lengthen/relax efficiently. Just have a think about the significance of that. Over trained, tight abs, or sucked in abs will compromise breathing – one of our most fundamental bodily functions.
The organs of the gastro-intestinal system, liver, gall bladder, kidneys.
At the back of the midriff is your spine, with all the surrounding muscles and ligaments
In some ways this is more important than the muscles if you want a leaner stomach.
There are load of issues here. They are complicated and well out of the scope of this article but a few things are worth mentioning
The first thing is a reminder that fuss about fat is partly a matter of aesthetics – lots of it is unfashionable
The second thing is the good vs bad nature of fat around the midriff. Fat, particularly in women, is a healthy necessity in the body. Aside from its metabolic function (for example synthesis of hormones) we are supposed to have stores of sub cutaneous fat (that is, under the skin) as fuel storage. Our ancestors, even just 100 years ago, let alone 1000 or 100,000 years ago needed it to get through the lean months, lean years, or to sustain pregnancy and fuel breast feeding.
All fat is not created equal however, and if the fat is stored around the internal organs (and known as Visceral fat) it is unhealthy and compromises organ function.
Can we have the best of both worlds: functional abs that look nice?
I’m into dodgy territory here… saying “look nice” and so implying a value judgement over what is nice and what isn’t. Here I simply want to put to put forward the good ways and the not so good ways of training the abdominal muscles and maintaining them. By maintenance I am referring to what you do with your abdominals in the vast majority of the time when you are not doing exercise.
What to do
Take your alignment and posture seriously. When sitting, don’t slump. (…I can just see you all sitting up in your chairs right now……..) Of course all the fat is going to concertina together and look, well, I’ll leave you do decide how it looks. How are you going to un-slump? Lengthen up through the spine, sit on your sit bones, and keep width through the collar bones and shoulder blades. Stand into your feet.
When standing, watch that the pelvis is in neutral. This is really crucial: ensure that the pubic bone to rib connection, which IS your abdominals, is holding the pelvis up and preventing it tipping forwards which instantly domes the abdominals makes them stick out more.
Breathe properly, slowly and fully. Remarkably this will actually train your abs! Your Rectus Abdominus contracts with every out breath. For more on that, click here
Weight training when standing. The abdominals have to work hard to stabilise the body during free weight work. Alternatively use body weight when the body is in All Fours or Side Lying. I’m not saying don’t lie on your back and to ab exercises, but want to remind you how helpful it is to do standing work. When you are lying on your back use leg exercises or weighted arm exercises to challenge the abs to sustain a neutral spine.
What not to do
Do Not suck your belly in to achieve faux flatness. You will disrupt breathing which in turn becomes shallower and more reliant on the secondary muscles over the upper body and neck. Shallow breathing, tight chest ? These things could inadvertently lead to you feeling tense/anxious. Sucking the belly constantly also runs the risk of chronically over curving the lumbar spine so that it curves out instead of in. This is not a good look and increasingly commonplace. You will reduce the mobility of the spine because if the abs are gripping at the front then the muscles responsible for moving the spine in the opposite direction cannot move either.
Slimming Pants. Like the Drugs, Booze, Fags and high heels – best done in moderation. Where does all that fat go when it is magically hidden? Well it certainly isn’t to Narnia.
If you compress the fat into the body then the internal organs can get pushed upwards to the diaphragm or downwards onto the pelvic floor. Hands up whose pelvic floor needs more strain on it? Compressing the organs upwards increases the risk of Hiatus Hernia.
Have tight shoulders. I am obsessed with this. Some of you know this! If your shoulders are tight then when you raise the arm past a certain point then there is insufficient mobility to allow for this, the rib cage will rise too. So with every arm lift the ribs rise, and to allow this, the abs have to lengthen. If they chronically lengthen, they chronically weaken. Work on the opposite: flexible shoulders and each time the arms lift the abs stabilise the rib cage in the correct position.
Abdominal exercises with poor technique. This appears to be a no-brainer but, everywhere I go I witness people working their abdominals badly or wrongly. Maybe the most important point is to ensure that you don’t work the front of the thigh instead of the abs. This is most common with the more extreme exercises like lying on your back and doing double leg lifts/lowers.
Plank Exercises done badly. I could write an essay on this, and indeed have. Basically avoid the elbow planks and take care when working from All Fours. Poorly executed Planks have the opposite effect to that intended – curved upper back and lower back with the abs relaxed and back muscles desperately trying to keep the body stable.
The Fitness Industry is driving this unhealthy obsession
This is an industry that exists to promote health and well being. Ideally that means a holistic approach to fitness: cardiovascular fitness, stamina, muscles strength, flexibility and suppleness in the body, and the positive contribution that exercise and movement can make to our mental health. The industry does indeed do all of these things but there is still too much imagery and emphasis on young, slim bodies in cropped tops with very flat midriffs. In recent years that has even extended to women having the “washboard” stomach that used to be associated with men. To get that you need seriously low body fat levels and you don’t necessarily get it from the occasional 5k run and Yoga class. You have to wonder if some of these people are taking hormone based drugs and excessively dieting.
The Contribution of Pilates
I am going to commit heresy….. Here goes:
Pilates doesn’t always help challenge the Ad-dominant culture. Often it contributes to it.
Logically, if the body is a holistic entity then the approach to exercise should be holistic. Why on earth would one muscle whose functions are those given above, need to be lauded and worked above all others? Yet so much Pilates appears centred around the abs.
The abdominals aren’t going to stabilise the body on their own. Quite apart from anything else they are at the front of the body and we humans are largely stabilised at the back from the feet upwards through the hamstrings, gluteals, lower back, Latissimus Dorsi and back of the shoulders.
The abs, no matter how hard you work them, cannot compensate for problems elsewhere. For example, if your hips are tight, all the abdominal strength in the world will not solve your forwardly tilted pelvis. You need to sort the hips out. If the abs are weak then that is a different issue.
We sit down a lot, often hunched over or slumped a little. So why on earth would we go into an exercise class, Pilates or otherwise, and train the body in a curved forwards position? The position you adopt if you do abdominal curls? There is absolutely a place for this – to mobilise the spine in flexion and strengthen the abdominals (a bit). Surely though, we should we be working on a leaner, straighter, more aligned, long body? The Inquisition will be after me if they read this, but think about it: if you sit all day, surely you need to straighten up and learn how to be strong and stable in that position and in standing, which is more favourable for your breathing and gives the internal organs room for manoeuvre, enables the gluteals to work better and opens the hips
Pilates is good for you!
Pilates can restore form and function to the body. It can strengthen muscles, make them less tight, get the spine and other joints moving. Pilates can help alleviate back pain and other pains, and enable rehab from injury. We learn from it good posture, alignment, breathing. It is fairly democratic – most people can have a go at it. I’m just saying that we instructors need to be mindful of the holistic nature of the body. Let every muscle or body part have it’s turn, it’s time to shine in the spotlight.
A tale of two Ritas
Rita Hayworth, American film star and dancer photographed in her lingerie (very racy) in the 1940s. Rita Ora the British singer, photographed in 2014. Both fashionable, famous style icons. Rita Ora is noticeably more toned. These pictures illustrate the trend towards fashionable low body fat levels.
and a bit more Reubens, painted around 1618 and entitled The Union of Earth and Water. No wonder we have the adjective Reubenesque.