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Active Abs

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Active Abs

Move on from a mediocre mid-section

Maybe it is summer around the corner, or an aching back that has triggered you into thinking you must do something about your mid-section? Whether it be vanity, relief from pain or improving posture; getting to know how to work your mid-section correctly can help you reap the benefits both visually and physically.

I am focusing mainly on the front muscles in this article, but if I was fully addressing the ‘core’ I would also be looking at the back, buttocks and pelvic floor which are all equally important in providing stability and correct movement.

Muscle up

Let’s start by focusing on what we have in the abdominal region.

Transverse abdominis: This is the deep abdominal muscle that helps draw everything in to give a flatter look, and also in conjunction with some other muscles helps when activated form a corset around the lower torso which helps protect the back and giving stability to the pelvis and spine.

Rectus abdominis: The six pack muscle. If the Transverse abdominis (or TVA for short) is like the walls and foundations of a house, the Rectus abdominis (RA) is like the wall paper on top. Its role is to flex the lumber spine and also assists in breathing, keeps internal organs intact and helps in childbirth by creating intra-abdominal pressure.

External obliques: These are on each side of the rectus abdominis. The external oblique muscles allow the trunk to twist, but to the opposite side of whichever external oblique is contracting. For example, the right external oblique contracts to turn the body to the left. They also help you bend sideways.

Internal obliques: these flank the rectus abdominis and are located just inside the hipbones. They operate in the opposite way to the external oblique muscles. For example, twisting the trunk to the left requires the left side internal oblique and the right side external oblique to contract together. They assist in breathing movements. Contrary to hearsay, there is no muscle called lower abdominals or upper abdominals, however different exercises can focus more on particular parts of the muscle.

When actively engaging the abdominal muscles, you can either follow ‘navel to spine’ method as used in Pilates or ‘abdominal bracing’ used by athletes such as boxers which involves forcefully tensing the core muscles. Professionals sometimes argue over which method should be used. My own opinion is use the one which best works for you, as they will both work at protecting your lower back.

Navel to spine - engaging the corset

Lying down:

  • Lye on your front with your toes turned in and heals turned out.
  • Have the back of your hands relaxed under your forehead.
  • Breath in, as you breath out, gently draw your abs towards your spine without lifting your back or buttocks - imagine there is a puddle under your navel and your navel does not want to get wet.
  • Breath normally as you try and hold this position for a count of 10
  • Release (if there feels like nothing to release, reduce how long you hold your abs in for, so you have something to release)
  • Repeat several times, stopping before technique starts to go.
  • As you do this exercise, you should get feedback from the floor that your abs are drawing inwards.

Lying down progressions:

Progression i

  • Lye on your front with your elbows below your shoulders and hands and forearms relaxed on the floor.
  • Have your legs extended with your feet hip distance.
  • Imagine there is a string through your navel
  • Take an in breath, as you breathe out imagine the string is pulling your navel up towards the ceiling and your navel will lift off the floor.
  • Breath in and hold (navel off the floor, but thighs down)
  • As you breathe out lower back down.
  • Repeat to fatigue

Progression ii

  • Lye on your front with your elbows below your shoulders and hands and forearms relaxed on the floor.
  • Have your legs extended with your feet hip distance.
  • Imagine there is a string through your navel
  • Take an in breath, as you breath out imagine the string is pulling your navel up towards the ceiling and your navel will lift off the floor, continue lifting higher till thighs are off the floor
  • Breath in and hold (thighs off the floor, but knees down)
  • As you breathe out lower back down.
  • Repeat to fatigue

Progression iii

    Repeat as above, but rather than stopping on your knees continue lifting up and come onto your toes.

* If you feel it in your lower back or lots in your upper body, go down a level as it is better to do correctly at a lower level than worse quality at a higher level. If you do not feel your abs working and the move is of good quality then progress up a level.

Standing up – tightening the belt:

When standing, first find neutral spine (NS). Feet hip distance apart pelvic tilt, backwards and forwards slowly decreasing to a balanced mid-way point, where pelvis will be in line with hips – this will allow for spine to be evenly balanced (Bowl of soup; tilt forward soup flow out the front, tilt under/back soup flow out the back, aiming for soup totally level in bowl)

  • Take an in breath, as you breath out draw your abdominals inwards as much as you can – as if tightening a belt to the 10th notch
  • Release 50% of the tension in your abs – losing the belt to the 5th notch of the belt
  • Release another 20% of the tension of your abs – losing to the 3rd notch.
  • Aim to keep your abdominals drawn in 30% not only when exercising, but also whilst going about daily activities
  • Remember to draw in from just above your pelvis upwards

Abdominal bracing

  • If you wanted to try abdominal bracing (which you will have used when giving birth), this is how….
  • Lye on your back, with knees bent and feet flat on the floor
  • Place a your fore finger and thumb either side as your navel (as wide as your hand allows)
  • Raise your head and shoulders off the floor – you should feel the muscle harden
  • Lower your head and shoulders back down and try and keep the tension in the abdominal region – remember to breath!

Back and front

In addition to activating the abdominals correctly, it is also very important to point out that it is important to strengthen your lower back muscles too. If you only work the abdominal muscles and forget the back, the ratio in the difference between abdominal and lower back strength will actually increase leaving you more open to injury.

Sit-ups

Whilst sit-ups are not necessary the best of abdominal exercises, nether the less they remain very popular. With that in mind, I want to share with you my top three tips:

  1. Ensure your abdominals are drawn in 30% to start with
  2. Breath out as you raise your head and shoulders up – this is because you are expelling air from your body, which should in turn allow you to keep drawing your abs in as there is more space to pull in – and stops the abs doming outwards
  3. Your head only moves as you are shortening the distance between ribs and hips –ie moving as your abs are moving which causes your head to lift – rather than just lifting your head.

You are what you eat

You can train the abdominal muscles all you like, but to see strong definition, then your food intake plays a huge part. If there is a big layer of fat over the muscle, you are still not going to see the look you may want.

Now you have the knowledge, make sure you either draw navel to spine or abdominal brace next time you work out (and why not practice whilst waiting in the supermarket queue).

To find out more look on www.everybod.com/classes to find out when EveryBod Pilates classes are run.

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