This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 105 – November 2004
Fashion dictates everything from clothes to garden design, from therapies to body shape. Its superficiality is matched only by its impermanence, so that what is fashionable today is destined to become old-fashioned tomorrow.
Fashion in clothes often influences body shape – witness the corset and the wasp waist. Oscar Wilde said that he once saw in a French journal, under a drawing of a bonnet, the words: ‘With this style the mouth is worn slightly open’, showing that fashion can also dictate body use. Styles frequently focus attention on a specific part of the body and prompt a renewed interest in it. The abdomen is a case in point. The recent fashion for baring the midriff has encouraged an upsurge in navel-gazing among us all.
Beyond showing a few inches of tummy, this fashion also reveals that the fall of the abdominal wall is a common condition, despite all the available exercises and programmes that purport to make it worthy of exhibit. But, as in clothes, muscles – and the exercises to enhance them – go in and out of vogue. It is interesting to note that muscles within one muscle group can fall into disgrace while others belonging to the same group gain favour.
Take the abdominal muscles for example. The obliques, especially the external ones, have for some time been receiving a bad press in the body-building milieu. This is because they are said to ‘make the waist wider, ruining the pleasing V-shaped physique’. Is that ‘V’ as in Vanity? But could you imagine a classical Greek statue, say a Doryphore, without beautifully developed obliques? Do they really spoil its beauty, elegance and feeling of strength? On the contrary! So if you want to sacrifice health and beauty to follow the diktats of modern aesthetics, make sure you keep your obliques on the straight and narrow.
If the obliques are already Out, the same trend leads me to predict that the Rectus abdominis may soon suffer the same fate. The famous six pack is under attack. Suddenly, these muscles, once the darling of the body beautiful seekers, are accused of creating mischief such as pulling the body down, rounding the shoulders, putting pressure on the pelvic floor, etc, etc.
Obviously, it’s not the Rectus abdominis which is responsible for these misdeeds but the way it is exercised. This brings us back to fads. For a long time, the ‘sit-up’ was the exercise of choice for these muscles under the delusion that they generated a perfect washboard. Unfortunately, only our hip flexors benefited while our backs complained. Then, came the ‘crunch’ which was supposed to revolutionize the abdominal workout. This is also beginning to disappoint. Meanwhile, we have been encouraged to buy countless gadgets that end up in the shed, the charity shop or on the pavement having been used only a few times. All these methods having failed, it’s only human to be tempted to throw out the baby with the bathwater: to blame the Rectus rather than the methods to train it.
Our new darling, the one which overshadows the Rectus, is the Transversus abdominis. ‘Experts’ talk about it as if its existence and role had just been discovered. It has become one of the chief components of the so-called ‘core’ muscles. Nowadays, in the gym, instead of ‘crunching’ away, you are supposed to be on all fours tucking in your tummy. Unfortunately, the Transversus proves to be another tricky fellow, made up of two functionally distinct parts: one below the navel and one above it. By ignoring the cause (overtight back muscles), any effort to shape the part below the navel is doomed to failure, creating instead a greyhound-like tummy – a shape more suited to dogs than humans.
The Transversus abdominis is indeed a very important muscle, but so is the Rectus, especially in its little-known relationship with the shape of the chest. It is surprising how much confusion about the role of these muscles exists in the mind of some people who should know better. Thus, in a recent body-building magazine I read that “Both the hip flexors and rectus abdominis cross the hip joint and are the prime movers in hip flexion”. Certainly not in my anatomy book! It’s amazing what I have to read to keep myself informed and misinformed.
In short, nothing good can come from working muscles in isolation. Abdominal muscles, like wolves, live in packs – not a six-pack but a pack of seven: two Rectus, four Obliques and one Tranversus. They work, or should work, in synergy. To get the abs into good condition requires that they are exercised while the spine is in full extension which in turn requires that some muscles in the front of the neck are also contracted.
The recent focus on specific muscles around the navel area is like a cheap westernized version of the Eastern Hara or Ki, forgetting the primary importance of the poise of the head in movement and muscle tone distribution. In Equilibre and Équilibration, André Thomas, a renowned neurologist, wrote that “…Man’s posture, like in most animals, is conceived in such a way that the poise of the head is its final goal”. Stop navel-gazing and focus instead on the poise of the head in relation to the neck and back, then you’ll start to see an improvement in the condition of your much loved abs. And this is a fact, not a fad.