This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 34 – November 1998
The English call it the ‘six-pack’, the French, the ‘chocolate bar’: a well-sculpted midsection. Judging by the proportion of flabby abdomens around, one could be forgiven for believing that some people take these slang words too literally: that they rely on a diet of beer and chocolate bars to achieve that elusive washboard look. Let’s face it, rippling abdominal muscles (‘ripped abs’ to the initiated) are more of a rare sight than a common one. Why is that so?
It is certainly not because they are out of fashion. ‘Ripped abs’ are on the front cover of many fitness magazines. The recent trend is to have models and sportsmen lifting their T-shirts to show off their sculpted abdomens. The focus is definitely on the abdominal muscles. So, why the excitement?
Let’s have a look at the anatomy of the abdomen. First, let me introduce you to the rectus abdominis: twin muscles which run from the pubis directly upwards to the lower ribs. They are made of two muscle sheets divided by one tendon running down the middle and, horizontally, by four aponeurotic (fibrous-like) intersections. When the tendon and the aponeurosis are well-defined and differentiated they give the much-desired ‘six-pack’ appearance.
One of the roles of the rectus abdominis is to flex the spine forward. In this regard these muscles are very important as they are the only (with the exception of the lower portion of the transversus abdominis) true antagonists of the powerful lower back muscles, in other words they oppose them. The obliques, with their rotating and side-bending actions, work predominantly in synergy with the back muscles.
Articles about the abdominal muscles usually describe them flexing the spine, and the back muscles extending it. It is assumed that, when it comes to the spine, flexion can only be forward. Here I have to make a volte-face, to go front to back. Here come the back muscles! The universal adoption of the term ‘extensor’ to characterise the back muscles is a universal mistake – and a serious one since the so-called extensor muscles of the back do not exist. They are a myth.
The primary function of the back muscles is to postero-flex (arch) the spine, not to extend (elongate) it. The fallacy of ‘extensor’ muscles of the back stems from much bad advice given by ‘experts’ who should know better. Blinded by the magic word ‘extensor’, they constantly urge us to strengthen these muscles to make sure that they’ll do their fictional job of keeping us erect, straight and upright, so that we do not collapse and slouch. The road to bad shape and a bad back is usually paved with good intentions.
The truth of the matter is that the most common cause of back pain is over-toned back muscles. This tightness happens to be also the cause of flabby abdominal muscles. Unfortunately, the reverse has been taught and fitness magazines encourage us to do abdominal exercises for the wrong reasons. We are often told that strong abdominal muscles will give us a strong back and will help support it.
We are taught that when it comes to back pain, weak abdominals are the culprit. This is a miscarriage of justice! The truth is, abdominal muscles are the victims, their strength being stolen by the over-reacting back muscles. In actual fact, the back does not need support and the last thing it needs is to get stronger. Our ‘experts’ put the cart before the horse and this is not going to lead us very far.
Another role of the rectus abdominis is to keep the lower ribs in the right position so that they flatten the sub-mammary region. If the ribs are weak, they can no longer safeguard the proper shape of the chest and various deformities occur, such as the funnel or gutter-chest and the pigeon-chest. A common distortion is the outward and forward flaring of the lower ribs.
Blessed is the owner of a well-formed chest! A perfectly shaped torso demands that, in profile, the nipples are the most protruding point; and, from the nipples to the pubic bone, the thoraco-abomimal line is straight. Any protruding or receding of the abdomen from this line is a departure from the normal shape and an invitation to impaired health. Everybody wages the battle of the bulge but few realise that a concave abdomen is undesirable in terms of health and beauty. If you try to constantly hold your tummy in, you will end up with protruding lower ribs, a lower abdomen bulge and, between the two, a hollow, greyhound-style tummy. This shape betrays a very tight diaphragm and spoils the ideal line. Indeed, the perfect profile described above is a rare occurrence.
If you don’t have the torso of a Greek statue it’s because you suffer from muscle imbalance. In a nutshell, the back is too short, the front too slack. And if the front is flabby it is because it is inhibited by over-tight back muscles. In this condition all traditional exercises for strengthening the abdominal muscles will result in strengthening the back muscles even more. The old-fashioned sit-ups, the more recent ‘crunches’ and even the newly-devised exercises, all make you practise the same mistake: trying to tone up the abdominal muscles in positions where the spine is not lengthened in its totality.
So, for the time being, stop your contractions, do your contrition and I’ll give you the ‘ab solution’ in the next issue.