The 6-Pack Myth: Why defined abs don’t equal a strong core

Defined or “ripped” abs are seen as the ultimate in health and fitness. Men’s Health magazine terms it the “blue ribbon in weight room achievement”, fitness models and rock-star yogis proudly display theirs as they demonstrate complex strong poses. There are core strength yoga programs and even a Yoga Shred challenge promoting that ideal. If you want to sell the latest fad diet or detox program, it appears that putting a picture of a model with defined abs does the trick. The message is that health and core strength comes with a well-defined six-pack. Sorry but not always and here’s why.

The 6-pack muscles are the Rectus Abdominis, the most superficial of the abdominal muscles both physiologically and functionally. This muscle group flexes the trunk, bringing the upper body towards the lower body, basically a sit up or crunch, and that’s it. Definition here demonstrates very low body fat, and some serious superficial ab training. Low body fat and a trim waist is absolutely a health benefit, decreasing the risk of diabetes, heart disease and immune deficiency; it’s just not necessarily an indicator of a strong core. A strong core actually comes from deeper abdominal muscles, the back and the Glutes.

Our true core muscles, the Diaphragm, Internal and External Obliques, Transverse Abdominis (TA), Quadratus Lumborum(QL), Psoas, Erector Spinae and Gluteals work synchronistically to take care of all of the things we do everyday: walk, run, twist, lift, bend, sit and stand. Those same movements apply in our practice, particularly a dynamic Vinyasa style.

So let’s dive a little deeper into the core starting with the diaphragm, the muscle we use for breathing or at least we should. The diaphragm contraction on the inhale creates intra-abdominal pressure which triggers the pelvic floor and the TA to activate. This interplay of pressure and muscle activation supports the lumber spine (lower back) like a brace keeping it neutral, essential for lifting anything; weights, children or groceries. It prevents exaggerating the lumber curve when we lift and thus avoids excessive pressure on the intervertebral discs. Lack of bracing while lifting is one of the biggest causes of bulging or herniated discs. The TA is engaged with the exhale in order to help press the breath out and thus still maintains the support of the lumber spine.

An exaggerated curve in the lumber spine, the hip bones pushing forward, actually switches off the pelvic floor. When jumping or running, especially for women, we need the pelvic floor engaged to control the bladder with the bounce. Engaging the Glutes will help to keep the pelvis in neutral position and the pelvic floor switched on.

The movement of standing up from sitting or sitting down is essentially the same as a squat and should be done with a neutral braced spine and Glutes engaged. Think about it as straightening or folding from the hips rather than the knees. This takes care of the spine, preventing the exaggerated curve, and the knees in one go.

When we are walking or running the TA and pelvic floor switch on to give us stability through the pelvis as we shift the weight from one foot to the other. Staying upright requires the engagement of the Erector Spinae. The twisting of the body requires the Obliques, QL and the Psoas, and this gives us the arm swing that balances us, it also adds to the efficiency of the movement. The swing forward of the leg begins with the Psoas. In fact James Earls, author of Born to Walk, suggests that our ability to walk and run is only possible because of the rotation of the body and core engagement, the arms and legs just give momentum. We also rely on the co-activation of the Gluteals and Psoas as we shift our weight from one foot to the other, without it we lose balance or put more pressure on the Illiotibial Band and stress the knees.

When we want a movement to be stronger or more dynamic it has to come from the core. Like a wind up for a throw, the further you want it to go the deeper the movement starts. If we are stable in our centre we can reach further, move faster and better, without stressing the body.

As you see, a toned and strong core is essential for daily life, the defined 6-pack is a bonus by-product. So now let’s look at how to actually strengthen those deep muscles. As they act together we train them together rather than trying to isolate one group at a time.

Sequence for core strength

You will need a mat, a blanket or towel and a smooth surface or a ball (at least soccer ball size up to fit ball).

  1. Tadasana forward fold, jump back to plank and hold for 10 breaths.

Push back to Downdog and jump forward trying to bring hips over hands and keeping legs straight. Utkatasana with twists: inhale centre, exhale to twist to one side and repeat 5 times each side. Jump back to plank, pause for one breath then push back to down dog.



2. Inhale to raise one leg, exhale come forward to plank bringing the knee towards the opposite armpit. Repeat 5 times then switch sides.



3. Push back to down dog then jump forward to standing again.Ground the left foot, hands on hips and inhale draw the right knee into the chest. Exhale to extend the leg out in front. Inhale reach the left arm in front and right arm reach back. Exhale to swing the right leg and left arm behind you, the right arm forward to counter balance. Inhale to come back to upright, right knee itno the chest and start again. Repeat 5 times this side then switch sides. Finish in tadasana.

Inhale lift, exhale fold forward and jump back to plank. Step the feet onto the ball or towel, inhale draw the straight legs in towards the body lifting the hips like press handstand, exhale push the feet back out to plank. Repeat 5-10 times.

Push back to down dog and jump through to sitting. Inhale lift legs in front for Navasana, straight legs if you can but making sure you’re lifting up out of the lower back. Hold for 5 breaths then rest and repeat the pose 5 times.



4. Lie down on your back, inhale feel the lower back press towards the floor, try to hold that as you lift the legs up to 90 degrees. Exhale, still maintaining the press of the lower back against the arch, lower the legs as low to the ground as you can control while maintain the spine. Repeat 5-10 times. Relax.

About the author: 

Erin is a Gold Coast based Level 2 yoga and pilates teacher, teacher trainer and exercise scientist.


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