Trusting Your Gut

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Last issue we were talking about lifestyle changes, workout ideas and surmounting potential fitness roadblocks in the new year. How’s it going? Hopefully, you have been making some progress toward your long-term health and overall fitness goals.

This month we are going to talk about your core. So, yes, I mean your mid-section, abdominals … and more. It might also help to look at your core lifestyle choices and beliefs that are going to end up dictating how the core looks and feels.

Let’s start with the aesthetics. Your core is composed of a variety of muscles. Probably the most targeted in a traditional fitness setting is the rectus abdominus, ostensibly your “six pack.” The six pack is going to be targeted by crunches and sit-ups. It is the muscle that flexes and extends your spine (like when you are doing sit-ups). The bummer about the six pack is that it would probably not rate as the most important functional-movement core muscle. It stabilizes the spine, it’s a good muscle with some function, don’t get me wrong. But have you ever seen that bodybuilder guy with a six pack and a stomach that pooches out like your hefty neighbors’? You know you have. That’s because while the body-builder might have low body fat and a strong rectus abdominus muscle that is well-defined, he may have over-trained this muscle while neglecting to focus on the less visible underlying muscles, the ones that actually hold in that pooch.

What does this mean? Well, you can develop that six pack but still not have a very strong core. You want to focus on the oblique and transverse muscles, as well as developing a strong lower back. Obliques are most commonly targeted by exercises that bring the opposite sides of your abdominal region together. Think of the “bicycle exercise” where you lie on your back and bring your right armpit toward your left knee while extending your right leg out straight, then switching sides. There are dozens of permutations of this movement, which is just one of many oblique exercises.

The transversus muscle (this is a very specific and important core muscle – maybe the most important) is more like a lap belt that wraps around you at the height of your belly button. Like a girdle, it keeps everything supported, tucked in and contributes to healthy lower back function. Pilates focuses a lot on this muscle because it needs to be targeted pretty specifically. It is worth learning more about how to work this muscle through your own reading or a professional’s guidance. The common “plank exercise” (where you are on your forearms in a modified push-up position) is one exercise that will fire the transversus because it fires all your core muscles at the same time. This would be another staple abdominal exercise I would recommend. Just make sure you’re doing it properly.

If you want that six pack to show, you need to really look at your diet as well. So, what are your core beliefs about diet? What do you call normal and what do you call healthy, and how close is your normal to healthy? It is interesting that what a lot of people call healthy really means not unhealthy. If you are actively choosing to eschew unhealthy foods, that is a good first step. But are you actively choosing healthy foods as well? It seems to me that often it takes some significant effort to find healthy foods in our day-to-day environment, and it requires some pre-planning or meal preparation. Foremost, I am talking about incorporating vegetables and fruit in to your diet on a regular daily basis. In addition, try eating a healthy breakfast that will give you energy, level your blood sugar and assuage your hunger as the day progresses (forestalling the common evening food gorge). Eating healthy doesn’t mean only eating half the fries or not eating dessert. I am talking about eating vegetables or a salad instead of fries, or having a snack of fruit midday so you don’t even want dessert. A lot of us tend to go around hungry
half the day, and over-full the other half. We’d all be a lot more productive, happy and energetic with healthy, living food regularly fueling our energy stores.

One more quick thing about your core. What do you call reasonable and normal for you? What are your core values, so to speak? Are you surrounded by people who support your healthy pursuits, your goals of long-term health? I am not talking about people who are manic exercisers. I am talking about people who mirror what is important to you, and have your long-term best interest in mind. If you aren’t, then change that. You need to be able to trust your gut and be true to your core.

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