Fact 1: Given the choice, most people would opt to have a flat and toned tummy.
Fact 2: In order to achieve a flat tummy, most people sweat at the gym or boot camps doing fast paced abdominal crunches and sit ups, with poor breathing patterns and sub-optimal techniques. Not only can this lead to a tummy that sticks out more, it can also cause a myriad of other problems for both women and men. (ie. urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, diastasis of the rectus abdominis-which is a gap in the middle of the ‘six pack muscles’-as well as back pain).
Fact 3: Crunches and sit ups increase the pressure inside the abdomen, and excessive pressure with poor technique strains the pelvic floor and abdominal muscles and the spinal discs.
Fact 4: Pilates abdominal exercises, when done correctly, gives you a flatter tummy and allows for better spinal and pelvic function. It’s not just about a flat tummy!
As a physiotherapist with a special interest in exercise therapy and in pelvic floor dysfunction, I am passionate about teaching my clients how to improve their abdominal strength without causing problems to other parts of their bodies.
I usually explain to my clients first the concept of the Abdominal Canister (also known as ‘The Core’):
The picture above shows the muscles that surround this ‘canister’. The breathing muscle at the top, the spinal and abdominal muscles at the back, front, and sides and the pelvic floor muscles at the bottom. Inside this canister are your organs. As this is a closed compartment, there is pressure inside. When you breathe and move, this pressure shifts around.
As an example, when you perform an abdominal crunch, rounding up your lower spine, holding your breath and letting your tummy muscles bulge out (giving the appearance of a French baguette in the middle of your tummy), you are placing excessive downward pressure in your pelvic floor muscles, forcing the middle of that ‘six pack muscle’ and placing pressure on your spine.
The Pilates method of doing an abdominal curl up allows these pressures to be distributed in a more balanced way by emphasizing the preparation of ‘the core’ before and during each movement. This preparation involves engaging and maintaining a lower effort contraction of your deep abdominal corset and pelvic floor muscles.
Therefore, instead of a French baguette appearance down the middle of your tummy, you are aiming to have a pitta bread appearance (ie. flatter!) as you curl your head and chest off the floor. At the same time as flattening your tummy, you will be protecting your pelvic organs and muscles.
How can you be sure that you are performing this exercise correctly?
A physiotherapist can help you understand this technique and confirm that you are doing it properly by using an ultrasound imaging machine. The physio places a probe over different parts of your tummy (by the wat, this is completely pain free!) and you get instant visual feedback of what your muscles are doing. In most cases, it takes a few corrections to get the optimal movement pattern, and then it is just a matter of diligent practice to achieve that healthier and flatter tummy!
Monica Donaldson, Physiotherapist.