Yes, I get it. Six packs are hot and you want one.
But before you choke on your grilled skinless chicken breast trying the latest “6 weeks to a six pack” program that some pseudo-professional posted on their Instagram page, let’s take a step back and understand what a six pack is. And whether the grind to get one is worth it (but that’s for you to decide, after reading this).
Meet your Rectus Abdominus
When you isolate this little muscle and give it a lot of work to do (and get rid off all excess body fat covering it), it peeps out to say hi to the world. Specifically, it peeps out in six little waves.
The rectus abdominus forms a part of our ‘core’ muscle group and assists in spinal flexion (it helps you bend forward) and all the other functions of the core. And like we already know, the primary role of your core is to instantly make you 1000 times sexier. Oops, I meant stabilise your spine and minimise movement of your lumbar spine.
Now what if I told you,
- You don’t need to have a six pack to have a strong, well functioning core
- Even if you do have a six pack, that doesn’t mean you have a strong core
So if your body doesn’t need the abs of Greek God to function properly, what does it need?
#1. Reflexive stability (core muscles that fire when they need to)
How many times have you pulled your lower back while lifting a suitcase, gas cylinder, water can, tying your shoelace (I’m not making that one up!)?
Did you know that your core actually anticipates movements of your limbs and prepares for movement before any actual movement happens?
Reaching for the remote control, getting up from a chair, lifting food to your mouth – these are all activities that involve instinctive contraction of your core muscles even before your arms or legs move.
But with the sucky lifestyles we lead today – too much sitting down; not enough moving around – the core loses this ability to prime the body for movement. Which often leads to uncontrolled, random movement of joints like the spine, knees or ankles.
#2. Intra-abdominal pressure
Imagine for a moment that you have a balloon placed behind your rib cage and stomach. Now say you are bending down to pick up a heavy weight.
Would you want this balloon to be deflated and weak, or filled with air and taut?
You’d obviously want a taut, strong structure to help you pick that weight up. (Unless my analogy made no sense and you’re left wondering what balloons have to do with picking up weights, and whether a pink or blue balloon would make a difference).
Intra-abdominal pressure is the ability of the muscles around the abdomen to get taut, with a combination of muscular contractions and breath. When you are able to get taut around your abdomen while lifting weights, you engage all the muscles of your core while making sure your spine or surrounding joints do not take unnecessary load.
#3. Lumbar stability and thoracic mobility
Here’s two things to know about your spine,
- Your lumbar spine – i.e. lower back – is NOT supposed to move around a lot. It is meant to be a stable structure.
- Your thoracic spine – i.e. upper back – is meant to have a larger range of motion.
Guess what happens when you spend your whole day glued to a laptop though?
Your upper back becomes stuck in a hunched position and loses its natural range of motion. Your lower back – in an attempt to help out a slacking team member – starts doing all the movement.
So essentially, the roles of each part of your spine are reversed. Not a good recipe for a healthy spine.
#4. Buns of steel
Buns. Booty. Glutes.
Call them what you want but don’t forget to train them!
Because we’ve become a society that likes to sit on our butts rather than actually use them to move around, our glutes don’t work the way they are supposed to.
The primary function of the glutes is hip extension (i.e. what you do when you stand up straight). But because we don’t actually spend enough time standing up or walking around these days, our glutes stop doing the work they are meant to.
Which means other muscles jump in to do their work. The lumbar spine is like an overly enthusiastic toddler in this scenario – wants to help out but isn’t capable of doing much beyond making smiley faces and poopy diapers.
So what does this mean? You guessed it, hello lower back pain.
A fun reminder to indulge in another kind of six pack, because you can get through life without abs. (But also remember to squat heavy on Monday).
So where do you go from here?
Here’s the part where I tell you what you can do to get stronger. Fortunately, the answer – like many of life’s important questions – is strength training.
Squatting, deadlifting, pushing and pulling heavy weights with proper technique reverses many of the muscular compensations that take place in our systems.
In addition to strength training, some specific exercises go a long way in helping the particular issues mentioned here…and that’s a topic for another blog post 🙂
P.S. – yes I know there are only five points here while the title promised six, but “Five things your body needs more than a Six pack” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, so you’ll have to put up with a little bit of artistic license.