Everyone wants 6 pack abs. I don’t care your age or gender but it seems this is the ultimate fitness goal. We are flooded with things like workout videos promising 6 minute abs, magazines full of models showing us what we “should” look like, infomercials trying to sell us the next tool to chisel that 6 pack, or trainers in the gym screaming in our ear to do one more sit-up to get that stomach we have been dreaming of for years on end. Most would think if you are so disciplined or genetically blessed with having a 6 pack you have a pretty stable core….right? Right?! WRONG!
A famous biomechanics researcher and author, Stuart “Stu” McGill said “show me a six pack and I’ll show you dysfunction.” The truth is, a six pack can actually be more detrimental than beneficial. When we suck in and contract our abdominals to make this six pack appearance, we likewise end up inhibiting one of the most forgotten muscles. It just so happens to also be one of the most important muscles in core stability, the diaphragm.
The diaphragm is a muscle that lies horizontally between the lungs and abdomen. By moving up and down, not only does it allow you to breathe but it also provides stability by creating pressure in your abdomen. Long story short, if your diaphragm isn’t working it makes a weak link in your stability system, opening you up for injury. Not to mention, if you don’t properly utilize the diaphragm you will begin recruiting other muscles, hence chronic tightness in the shoulders and neck.
A functional core actually looks more like you letting your belly hang out, no tension, just relaxed (aka picture on the right, the picture on the left is dysfunctional). Think of a baby, they all have little pot belly’s. Why exactly is this? Well, the truth is that vanity has not tainted them. They do what they are programmed to do. It isn’t until we are told to suck our “gut” in or we need a six pack to be sexy, that we start losing this normal function. When it comes to working out or lifting, yes you should contract but it should be a pressure outward. If you have a weight belt on, this means pressing into it 360 degrees around. If you are not wearing one, pretend you have one on and the same concept applies.
Some people have low enough body fat that yes you can see their six pack but 99% of the population this is not the case. If per chance you are one of those people, it should be a barrel type six pack not a sucked in contracted six pack. The only time I give permission to my patients to hold tension in the core is when they are in a swim suit…I get it you don’t want to look like you have a pot belly. Any other time, let your belly relax, use diaphragmatic breathing (see YouTube video), and create pressure in your abdomen when lifting. Do you want stability? Do you want to prevent injuries and unnecessary tension from happening? Give up the six pack, let it all hang out!