In today's culture, six-pack abs conjure up the image of sexy fitness. Posture experts, however, claim that the glamorized six-pack is vastly overrated. For example, Mary Bond (The New Rules of Posture), Kathleen Porter, (Natural Posture for Pain-Free Living), Michaelle Edwards (YogAlign), Suki and Russell Munsell (DynamicVitality.com) and others argue that zeroing in on developing a six-pack while ignoring exercises that strengthen the entire torso -- or the "keg" -- can lead to imbalances that cause postural problems and a chain reaction of dysfunctions in the body.
For good reason, it is important to develop the entire core. There are muscles in the torso that need be equally emphasized when developing core strength. The six-pack, comprised of the rectus abdominus muscles, connects from the ribs and breastbone all the way down to the pubic bone. Although the discipline required to achieve the ripped abs look is definitely admirable, people should realize that there are downsides if the other nearby muscle groups are ignored.
The rectus abdominus group is superficial, close to the inner surface of the skin. The "keg" is composed of many muscle groups essential to proper breathing, posture and functional fitness. The six pack comprises only 1/8 of the package.
Over-emphasizing six-pack abs can actually be detrimental to breathing, moving, digesting and good postural alignment. Often people who have strong and tight six-packs also have forward head and shoulder carriage because the tight, short abdominal muscles pull the breastbone toward the pubic bone. Forward head and shoulder carriage will accelerate poor posture syndromes that show up in the aging process.
Suck the gut and tuck the butt: Why?
Many exercises advocate keeping the navel drawn in and tight, claiming this will develop flat abs, achieve core strength and result in proper posture. Some approaches, for reasons that have never been clear to me, also encourage a posterior pelvic tilt, pulling the tailbone down (or between the thighs), thus flattening the lower back.
However, posture research has shown that chronic tension in the abdomen from contracting the belly restricts the movement of the ribs and is an aberration of natural function that can sabotage breath, alignment, digestion, elimination, movements and moods. It simply is not necessary to constantly pull the navel toward the spine in order to gain core strength or attain upright alignment. Additionally, consistently tucking the butt can strain and overstretch the sacral ligaments.
After implementing suggestions of posture experts, I noticed some nagging problems begin to disappear. The same was true for many of my students. Too often, it seems, people are slow or even unwilling to shift familiar patterns, and I was no exception. However, doing so, for me and many of my students, has resulted in better overall fitness, core strength and significant pain reduction.
Practice the SIP up — an improved sit up to strengthen the core and align the posture.
Most core exercises use exhalations during the lifting and contracting, causing a chain reaction that shortens the entire front of the body. Michaelle Edwards, creator of YogAlign, teaches to strengthen the entire torso, the whole "keg," by inhaling with the SIP breath while lifting, lengthening and contracting. This, along with maintaining a neutral spine, are the most significant differences between a conventional sit-up and a SIP up. SIP is an acronym for somatically informed posture.
How to do a SIP up
SIP ups are more comfortable and effective for balanced core strength compared to curl ups, and they require fewer repetitions. A few SIP ups a day can keep the neck and back pain away! The old adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words," aptly applies in the case of explaining how to do a SIP up. So, go to my Facebook page or the Gazette website to watch my "SIP Up in a Minute" video. Below are some key points to follow:
1) Lie on your back with knees bent, feet on the mat at hip width, toes slightly turned out, shoulders drawn down the back and toward the spine, elbows bent and slightly off the floor, and the fingers spread and pressing into the back of each side of the head.
2) Maintain the natural spinal curvatures throughout the exercise. This is a key element.
3) Begin a SIP breath in, making a circle with the mouth and inhaling as if breathing in through a straw, expanding ribs and chest.
4) While continuing to SIP the breath in, lift the whole torso as a unit, leading with the breast bone; it is not necessary to lift more than a few inches.
5) Hold the torso up with shoulder blades barely lifted off the floor while hissing the breath out, contracting every core muscle and lengthening the entire spine.
6) Slowly lower with another SIP breath in, lengthening while isometrically contracting all the core muscles.
7) Staying down, continue to lengthen with strength while hissing the breath out.
SIP ups can also be done by diagonally lifting up right and left, being careful not to curl or lift too high. SIP the breath in when changing sides. Hiss the breath out when pausing on each side. Repeat 3-10 times. The relaxation phase and cessation of contraction is enjoyed only after completing the desired repetitions.
The concept of inhaling on the lift of a core-strengthening exercise is opposite to what most people have learned. The mind, nervous system and body together get patterned into ways of moving, so the SIP up could feel oddly foreign at first. On the initial attempt, the muscles required to do a SIP up may not easily respond. This is a sign that the entire core has not been utilized to breathe, stand and move, and that core strength is quite weak. To gain strength, visualize doing the SIP up completely while implementing the isometric tensing of the muscles that you can get in touch with. Fake it 'til you make it!
Check out the Gazette website and www.yogawithelizabeth.com for this and other previous yoga tips. Elizabeth Klarich is a certified yoga instructor who has been teaching classes in Billings since 1980.