Pilates....Strengthening Women From Within
Article by Jade Winter, Co-Founder of Studio Pilates International®
Training your core if you're a woman takes a different approach than a man. Every female I've taken for Pilates based core training over the last decade (that's over 60,000 client consultations and counting) have all wanted one thing and that is a flat stomach.
I'm here to tell you there is a critically important way to train the core for you to be able to achieve a flat stomach and it is overlooked 95% of the time in gym based workouts.
You see the secret to effective core training and gaining a flat stomach is to target and train the Transversus Abdominus. Without specifically targeting this muscle, the abdominal wall will continue to protrude and sag outwards and you will have the appearance of having a large or flabby stomach (particularly in the lower half of the abdomen which is often a problem area) even when you may not have much fat there.
No matter how many sit ups you do, if you don't train the Transversus Abdominus muscle you will never get a flat stomach!
This doesn't have to be the case, with simple training of the Transversus Abdominus (or T.A. for short) your stomach will appear flat, more toned and it will look like you've lost weight without even having lost an ounce of fat.
Sound too good to be true? Well believe it and take the time to learn how to activate your T.A. so you can maximise your abdominal or core training in the gym and gain the best stomach flattening results.
Where is the Transversus Abdominus?
Let's start from the outside and work inwards....
The Rectus Abdominus:
This is the least functional but most trained of all the abdominal muscles as they are your traditional 'six pack muscles'. Their role is to flex or bend the spine forward in a 'sit up' type action and that's about it. The rectus abdominus plays a very small role in core stabilisation contrary to most people's belief and they go from the ribcage below the chest to the pubic bone.
Internal and external Obliques:
These muscles rotate the torso so they are quite functional and they help to improve the tennis or the golf game. They also play a small role in stabilising the spine and aid in a small amount to overall core stabilisation and strength. These muscles appear either side of the six pack and can often be seen going over the ribs and also around the love handle area. They will help - in conjunction with the T.A. - to draw in the waist to give the waist a thinner and more of an hourglass appearance in women.
Transversus Abdominus: (T.A.)
The Transversus Abdominus is the deepest yet most important layer of stomach muscle yet it's the least trained. The T.A.'s role is to flatten the abdominal wall and also to stabilise the spine as it's the only stomach muscle to actually attach onto each of the lower vertebrae. Because of this reason, strengthening this muscle helps to reduce back pain and decrease the risk of injuring the lower back.
It's also the main core stabilising muscle and it works closely with the pelvic floor (and guys...you have a pelvic floor too...). Whilst you can't visually see the T.A., it's vital in flattening and toning the stomach hence giving the body the appearance of being thinner without actually having lost any weight or fat. If you're a female and you want a flat stomach, or if you're a male trainer who trains female clients, then training the T.A. is absolutely essential.
The Pelvic Floor:
The pelvic floor does pelvic floor type of activities and works in closely with the T.A. to aid in core stability and strength.
The pelvic floor can often be weakened in females by events such as child birth and in extreme cases a female can suffer from a pelvic floor prolapse which may or may not need surgery to repair. The most common symptom of pelvic floor weakness is stress incontinence which is the passing of a small amount of urine when sneezing or coughing etc.
Most women know how to activate their pelvic floor but focussing on it is often neglected when it comes to exercise. If you are a male trainer, you shouldn't be afraid to ask your female clients if they suffer from pelvic floor weakness as helping them to strengthen their pelvic floor can be life changing. By simply teaching the activation of the pelvic floor and then reminding your client to engage their pelvic floor before and whilst lifting weights, can often be enough to strengthen it considerably.
How do I train my T.A. and pelvic floor?
To activate the transversus abdominus and pelvic floor, simply lie on your back with your feet on the floor and your knees bent. Find the front of your hip bones (the part that's pointing up towards the ceiling) and place your fingers on the hip bones. Next, simply roll the finger tips over these bones onto the inside of the hips so your finger tips are just one centimetre inside the bone. Apply some downward pressure on your fingers but you should be still touching the hip bones.
Now imagine you have a letter 'T' drawn on the surface of the stomach with the vertical line of the T starting at the pubic bone and going upwards towards the belly button. The horizontal axis of the T goes from one hip bone to the other. This is what we catch phrase as the 'T-zone' at Studio Pilates International® to aid in imagery, memory and streamlining communication. Let's focus first on the vertical axis of the 'T' which is the pelvic floor.
Now engage the pelvic floor by imagining you are stopping the flow of urine midstream, drawing the muscles deep in the vagina upwards and inwards (for males imagine gently drawing the balls to the belly) whilst simultaneously constricting the muscles deep in the back passage (the rectum) as if you are preventing breaking wind. You should hopefully feel the pelvic floor tighten and some very slight tension in the muscles right on the inside of the hip bones.
This is the most polite way I can describe pelvic floor activation and it's often forgotten that the pelvic floor runs from front to back and incorporates the rectum.
Once this activation of the pelvic floor is mastered, then recruit the transversus abdominus as well...
Then, whilst holding the pelvic floor on, imagine that horizontal line on the surface of the stomach that connects the hip bones together and focus on flattening that imaginary line and drawing it downwards towards the spine. You can also imagine the hip bones towards each other (without sucking in the stomach or lifting the rib cage upwards).
In addition to this you may also like to think of drawing the navel to the spine but the contraction is based below the navel more, in between the hip bones. You should feel just a small amount of tension in the muscles just inside the hip bones under your finger tips. This is the pelvic floor and transversus abdominus working together and activating.
If you keep the pressure on the fingers and release the stomach muscles quickly you should feel the tension in the stomach under the finger tips release. Repeat the activation of these two muscles until you master it.
You are trying to keep all of the other stomach muscles relaxed at this stage as we are just focused on isolation and activation. Once you have mastered this and strengthened these muscles buy building up your endurance, you can then simply progress to trying to hold the activation of these muscles whilst doing increasingly challenging exercises and really making the most of your core training. Often it's just a matter of taking one step backwards to take ten steps forwards.
It's important to note that when you begin to curl the upper body up off the floor in a sit up type motion and you start to use some of the other stomach muscles such as the rectus abdominus and obliques, the stomach will want to bulge outwards. You should be always focussed on flattening the imaginary line on the surface of the stomach towards the spine and preventing this bulging from occurring. Only ever curl up as high as you can maintain a totally flat stomach otherwise you will be defeating the purpose of your core training and you will be teaching your abs to stick outwards.
Now take it to the next level
The sky is the limit when it comes to your core training that is once you've mastered the recruitment of the T.A. and pelvic floor and when you use them effectively in conjunction with the other abdominal muscles.
Remember your new found 'T-Zone' needs to carry over into everyday life and into your gym or fitness training, it's not enough just to focus on it when training the abdominals. Consciously think of keeping it tight for a whole month to create a habit and make it natural. Keep it tight even when sitting down or standing and your stomach will appear flatter, your waist thinner boosting your confidence and increasing your core strength at the same time.