Many people are on a quest to achieve a "flat stomach". The obsession with the abdominal area can cause frustration, anxiety, and can even lead to eating disorders. Unfortunately for many people it's not physiologically possible to achieve a flat-stomach. Our abdominals aren't designed to be flat. Instead, the abdominal muscles form a rounded, not flat, shape. Gender, age, and individual body types can affect the size and shape of your abdomen. This is especially true of many healthy and fit women who, when they reach about 40 years old, tend to get a lower abdominal "pooch" due to hormonal changes.
One of the four muscles that makes up the abdominal wall, The Tranverse Abdominis (referred to from now on as the “TA”) can play a big part in helping to lessen this lower abdominal protrusion but so often is forgotten or even unrecognised by many including (up until recently) exercise professionals and Trainers. The TA is the deepest abdominal muscle – the 3 being the Rectus Abdominis (“RA”) External Obliques and Internal Obliques. The TA is also one of the muscles that help to stabilise the spine. It lays to the front of the spine and wraps around the whole abdominal area, just like an old fashioned corset and, once engaged, creates a strong “Core “ or “Centre”. We can learn to recognise the contraction of the TA and therefore isolate it from the other abdominal muscles, mainly the RA, so that we can start to train from the inside and create a strong corset before we introduce again the dominant RA. This is why Pilates and Functional Core Stability Courses are particularly good for people who have joint injuries or complaints, women who have recently had babies or indeed anyone who has not exercised recently for whatever reason. In Pilates we can “learn from scratch” the technique of locating and strengthening the TA and it is an easier task if the RA is not so dominant that it wants to play all the time. It is slightly more difficult for regular exercisers who are used to Crunches and Sit-ups, to retrain the Abdominal area and try to keep the RA “still” for a change!
So, back to the Myth of the completely Flat Stomach. Instead of worrying about something we can't change, we can try focusing on something we can - like our posture. Poor posture can contribute to a "pot belly" look, while good posture can add to a trimmer-looking physique. Good posture consists of a slight bending of the knees, contracting the abdominal muscles to point the tailbone toward the floor, and keeping the shoulders back and head balanced on the neck (not leaning forward). Think of a string attached to your head which is being pulled upward. Better posture will make you feel taller and slimmer.
Stand in front of a mirror and watch the way you breathe. Take a deep breath. Notice what happens to your shoulders. They may rise up around your ears accompanied by your chest or your lower stomach may expand when you breathe in. All these are not efficient ways of taking a breath. So, how should we breathe? Laterally and Thoracically – in other words breathe Wide and Full into your back and sides. This makes sound sense as our lungs are situated in the ribcage and by expanding the ribcage, the volume of the cavity is increased and the capacity of oxygen intake is therefore also increased. It encourages us to make maximum use of the lower part of our lungs. This type of breathing works the muscles between the ribs, facilitating their expansion and making the upper body more fluid and mobile. Your lungs become like bellows, the lower ribcage expanding wide as you breathe in and closing down as you breathe out. We do not wish to block the decent of the diaphragm but, rather, we want to encourage the movement to be widthways and into the back as opposed to the abdomen. This type of breathing is important to the Pilates way of exercising, as is the timing of the breath. Most people find this timing difficult at first, especially if you are used to other fitness regimes, but once you have mastered it, it makes sense. As a general rule we:-
BREATHE IN TO PREPARE FOR A MOVEMENT
BREATHE OUT, ZIP UP AND HOLLOW, TO MAKE THE MOVE
BREATHE IN TO RECOVER
Moving on the exhalation enables you to relax into the stretch and prevents you from tensing. It also offers you greater core stability at the hardest part of the exercise and safeguards you against holding your breath which can unduly stress the heart and lead to serious complications.
With Pilates, we aim to perform the majority of the movements in Neutral Spine. Put simply, this is the position in which the spinal vertebrae and the pelvis are aligned and maintained with the least amount of stress placed on the supporting tissues and tendons. When neutral spine is attained, the natural curves of the spine are aligned so that the line of gravity passes between the ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles when in standing position. To attain neutral spine, place your hands on your hips and gently rock your pelvis backwards and forwards. Imagine your pelvis as a glass of water. As you tip your pelvis forward the water trickles over the front of the rim. As you tip backwards, the water spills out over the back. Gradually make these movements smaller and smaller until you come to a position where you visualise that the glass of water (your pelvis) is level. Now the natural curve of the spine is present. It may feel a little strange and not quite natural but it will become more familiar as you progress in your Pilates programme. Neutral spine can be attained in a similar way lying on your back on the mat and kneeling on all fours. I regularly re-visit finding neutral spine and good posture in classes so this will be explained thoroughly and regularly.
This next phase is collective for two important movements that need to take place in your tummy when we perform the exercises:- Transverse Abdominis Activation (Navel to Spine) -As explained above in the “Flat Stomach Myth” section that you have already read, the TA is one of four main abdominal muscles. It is also one of three smaller, deeper muscles that assist in stabilising the spine. The TA lays to front of the spine and wraps around the whole abdominal area, creating a strong natural corset or “Girdle of Strength” To activate the TA, imagine that you have a piece of string tied to the inside of your belly button and it is being gently pulled towards your spine. This is a muscle movement only – the spine should stay in neutral and the rest of the body remains completely still. You have now engaged your TA. Pelvic Floor Engagement – As with the TA, use your imagination. The Pelvic Floor is like a lift in a building. Pull up both your front and back passages (the same muscles that you use when you have to stop passing water in mid-flow) as hard as you can. The lift has just gone up to the 3rd floor. Now relax everything and the lift comes back down to ground level. I refer to these two moves together as “Zip up and Hollow” during the classes and you will learn how to use this contraction to suit the activities you are performing in your functional day to day life.
Lateral Thoracic Breathing
Once the TA and pelvic floor have been engaged, it is now necessary to adopt Lateral Thoracic Breathing (LTB). Placing both hands on your ribs, with your fingers meeting in the middle, breath IN – focus the breathing into the rib cage and feel the sides of the rib cage expand and your fingertips come apart. Breathe OUT – feel the rib cage move back towards the middle, allowing your fingertips to come back together. Avoid lifting the shoulders as this creates tension in the neck and shoulders. LTB is an important part of Pilates because, with the Zip up and Hollow movement happening in your tummy, we cannot breathe into the tummy at the same time – otherwise the Zip up and Hollow will be lost. However, it is important not to get over worried about correct breathing in the first few lessons as this is very much a “learned” technique and comes with practice. I will remind you of breathing techniques many times during the classes.