I was noticing how several of my Facebook friends were signing up to be part of an event: “30 Day Ab Challenge for those who need some motivation like me.” I clicked over to the event page and was surprised that 1.9 MILLION Facebook users have said they are going to take part. I work both as an Alexander Technique teacher and a Yoga teacher, so I spend a certain amount of my working week in gyms. I understand the pressure to look trim and have a slim waist, and I see the effort people put in to the goal of hard abs. I also see the harmful effects this can have on them. Tight abs can be really bad for the body, and here are five reasons why:
1. Six-pack abs contribute to bad posture and put strain on your neck
Good posture arises out of a delicate balance of forces in the body. The flexor muscles of the front of your body are there to act as a balance to the extensor muscles of your back body, which are the true “anti-gravity” muscles that hold you up off the floor. Your extensor muscles are intrinsically stronger, when taken as a whole, than your flexors. When everything is going well, the 15-or-so pounds of your head are lifted up off the top of your spine by your extensors. If they over-work and your head gets pulled back too much, your flexors are there to counter-balance. Whereas the tone of your non-fatiguable extensor muscle is continuous whenever you are upright, the tone required of your fatiguable flexor muscles to do their job, is smaller and only needed intermittently. To work your abdominals until they are so contracted that they are perpetually tight means you are setting up a constant downward pull against which your postural muscles have to work in addition to the downward pull of gravity. This means that your neck has to struggle to keep your heavy head, filled with your very important brain, upright and away from the very hard ground.
2. Six-pack abs contribute to lower back pain, rather than help it
Generally speaking, lower back pain comes from the discs and nerves of your spinal column being compressed in some way. Vertebra become displaced or crack, discs get ruptured or start to degenerate, and the nerves that come out of your spinal column in the spaces between your vertebrae are pressed on, which causes pain. Whereas, it is true that increased stability will help keep the structures of the lower back well-positioned so that the pressures and movements that are causing the struggle don’t happen, this stability needs to come from lengthening and widening, rather than adding more compression to a system that is already struggling under the effects of too much of it. The constant extra tone that hard abs have will only contribute to the problem.
3. Six-pack abs make it harder to breath
In order for your breath to flow freely, all the different parts of your breathing mechanism—diaphragm, ribs, lungs, accessory breathing muscles—need to be able to slide and glide around each other freely and with ease. Your six-pack muscles attach to the front of your ribcage. If you have developed them so that they are excessively toned all the time, this means that they are exerting a constant pull on the front of your rib cage and will prevent you from being able to breathe freely.
4. Six-pack abs make it harder to move
Moving well—with stability, balance, ease and power—comes from all the different muscles of the body being able to move freely and in coordination with each other. Those same tight abdominal muscles that are preventing you from breathing freely are also preventing all your other muscles from moving freely. Every time you reach your arm out, or take a step with one leg, or turn your torso, you will have one thick, unmoving muscle at the center of your body pulling back and restricting your movement, making every movement you do require that much more energy to execute.
5. Six-pack abs limit the function of your internal organs
Your muscles and bones are not the only thing that move as you breathe and make your way through the world. Your internal organs do as well. All your internal organs function by having your various fluids move through them. Fluid goes in at one end of the organ, gets processed in some way as it moves through it, and is moved out the other end to allow more fluid to enter. The only internal organ of the body that has its own pump to do this is the heart. Whereas blood pressure is a key factor to the internal functioning of the body, it can’t do all the work on its own. Your organs are moved around and massaged by the movements of your breath and the movements that you make during your daily life. To limit those movements is to deprive your organs of some of the inner flow that they rely on to keep functioning.
I’m not saying don’t exercise. Some form of daily exercise is important to keeping healthy and happy. What I am saying is: let your exercise be balanced and mindful, so that you use yourself consciously, intelligently and discerningly. Use your body in such a way that you are contributing to your overall health and wellbeing, rather than detracting from it.
And you know what is a great way to learn how to do that? Taking lessons in The Alexander Technique. The Alexander Technique can offer you simple and effective tools to move better, with more strength, more integration, and more ease. It will teach you to identify ways in which you create more difficulty for yourself and will show you how to make better choices in everything you do.