Forget Six-Pack Abs
Healthy abdominal muscles
are strong, not hard.
Have you ever stood at the mirror, sucked in your stomach and thought, "I wish I could look like this all the time?" If you grew up in the United States, your answer is probably yes. Madison Avenue has sold us the notion that taut abdominals are the quintessence of health and beauty. Rock-hard bellies are used to promote everything from underwear to cereal.
But if you yearn for the rippled look of "six-pack" abs, consider what you may sacrifice to obtain it: That look might cost you flexibility and freedom of movement. Overdoing abs exercises can lead to a flattening of the lumbar curve, creating a weakened spinal structure. "We're even beginning to see hunchback conditions because of excessive abdominal crunches," claims biomechanics and kinesiology specialist Michael Yessis, Ph.D., author of Kinesiology of Exercise (Masters Press, 1992). In our societal obsession with abdominal minimalism, we often lose sight of the true nature of this crucial part of the body. Abdominal muscles assist breathing, align the pelvis, flex and rotate the trunk, keep the torso erect, support the lumbar spine, and hold in the organs of digestion. The crunch-obsessed fitness buffs are partly right, though: Strong, toned muscles at the core of your body support good health. A basic knowledge of the belly's anatomy can help us approach core work with a more accurate mental map. So let's peel away the layers and see what lies under the skin.
Abdominal skin differs from much of the skin covering the rest of the body. It has a subcutaneous tissue that loves to hoard fat. It can store up to several inches. Those fat-free torsos you see in advertisements are possible for less than 10 percent of the population. You have to have really thin skin to show muscle, explains Richard Cotton, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, and this takes more than diligent exercise; it takes the right genetics.
You have to be young too. Once fat cells accumulate around your torso, they don't disappear. You can starve them; they'll shrink. But they will always be there, endeavoring to fill up. Too much belly fat—we all know—is unhealthy. But working too hard to eliminate fat can also cause serious problems. Women can suffer estrogen depletion, bone weakness, and fractures. "A few millimeters of fat over those muscles don't matter," Cotton says. Most adults, including distance runners and people of optimal health, carry a slight spare tire around their middles. Instead of obsessing about fat, we'd do better to focus deeper. Right under the skin, a sturdy wall of four paired muscles stretches over our internal organs. On the surface, the straplike rectus abdominus extends along the front, from pubic bone to sternum. On either side, a thin but powerful muscle, called the external oblique, courses diagonally from the ribs to the rectus, forming a "V" when viewed from the front. Running perpendicular to the external obliques, the internal obliques lie just below. These two pairs of muscles work in concert, rotating the trunk and flexing it diagonally. The innermost layer of abdominal muscle, the transversus, runs horizontally, wrapping the torso like a corset. You flex this muscle to pull in your belly. The sinewy, three-ply sheath formed by the transversus and the obliques provides a strong, expandable support; it protects the viscera and provides compression that aids elimination and a housing flexible enough for diaphragmatic breathing. You can exercise all of these muscles with yoga and consistent abdominal workouts.
BUT DON”T FORGET THE CARDIOVASCULAR EXERCISE TO
BURN THE FAT!