Your core is so much more than just your "abs." A healthy core is unfortunately more often than not portrayed as being a perfectly toned, tight, firm abdominal surface. Because of this we are conditioned to believe that a belly that appears soft or supple is not a strong or "healthy" core. The reality is your core has to be BOTH strong and supple in order for it to be healthy, which may mean that 6-pack abs not only are not natural to your body's shape and appearance but they also may not be healthy for your body.
Your core is literally your center. Think about it. It connects your upper to lower body, houses your major organs, and falls directly in the center of your body. So when we say "core" we aren't just talking about your abdominal muscles or your back muscles, we're talking about everything beneath them too. Anatomically speaking our "core" spans our diaphragm to our pelvis. So this means everything between those two landmarks makes up our core: our digestive, reproductive, and renal organs, abdominal and back muscles, ribs, spine and pelvis. The generalized feeling in our culture is that the core needs to be firm and tight, and like I said before this image is unfortunately often the only "positive" way the belly is portrayed in media. What happens when our own bellies don't look exactly like the ones we associate with being "good" or "healthy" is that we start to believe ours are bad because they look different. This is FAR from the case. For some bodies firm abdominals occur naturally, and for other bodies the abdominal muscles are not as "defined" or visible (which let me be perfectly clear, that does not mean that they are not there!!!!). Where our bodies store fat is determined by our genetics. The problem with placing so much value on having firm, tight, 6-pack abs is that it maintaining a firm, tight, "held in," "contained" holding pattern in the abdominals restricts the "natural movement" that occurs beneath the surface. When I say "natural movement" I'm referring to the subtle and involuntary movement of your organs.
Didn't know that your organs move?????
They do....! Ever watch the subtle rise and fall of your stomach when you breathe? When you take an inhale your diaphragm contracts and pushes your organs downward to make space in the thoracic cavity for your lungs to inflate with air. Simultaneously your abdominal muscles and the muscles surrounding the lungs must relax. When you exhale your diaphragm relaxes and the abdominal muscles subtly engage to help deflate the lungs and your organs are decompressed. Many people breath only into the top portion of their lungs and do not breath to their lungs fullest capacity. This happens for a number of reasons spanning from simply not being aware to chronic holding patterns and being unable to relax through the abdominals. It's also important to note our organs move on their own as well (without the help of skeletal muscle engagement or without the help of the lungs pushing down on them). Specifically the digestive organs. Obviously you chew your food before you swallow it however from there, in order for food to move from your esophagus to your stomach through your intestines it must be churned, and moved, and squeezed until it is broken down for the body to derive fuel and nutrients from it. The digestive organs are all lined with smooth muscle which is a type of muscle that contracts involuntarily (you don't have to think about moving it), and creates what is referred to as peristaltic movements. Peristaltic movement can most easily be visualized as a symmetrical wave like contraction. In regards to the digestive tract/system we can see why and how peristaltic moevemnts are important to breaking down food and moving it through our system (they get the food from one organ to the next). A core that is restricted and does not allow room for the organs to move freely through their "natural movements" can disrupt our body's rhythm, which means we may not be breathing as efficiently or we may end up experiencing some digestive issues, which both instances could potentially lead us to experience larger problems in our body. That's why it's SO important to keep in mind that the way we hold our bodies or carry our bodies on a daily basis can overtime have a noticeable effect on our health and wellbeing.
As important as it is to be strong through the abdominals and the core keep in mind it's equally important to be supple and to be able to freely move through that area of the body. The disadvantages we may experience as a result of being too restricted through the abdominals far outweighs the aesthetic of the toned, firm "healthy" core we see on a daily basis. From restricting our breath and our digestive functioning among a number of other problems we can potentially experience. However, before you completely ditch planks forever remember the purpose of your abdominal and low back muscles. The musculature supporting your core needs to be strong in order to support and protect your vital organs, spine, and upper body as well as serve as the "bridge" between your torso and lower body. So keep up with those planks but maybe add some updog and backbends to your core routine...and most importantly the next time you find yourself hung up on a 6-pack or a perfectly toned core, remind yourself of what your core actually is, the purpose it serves, and be true to what is healthy and practical for your lifestyle and your body.
To learn more about the core see the events page for the upcoming Total Body Tune Up: Low Back and Abdominals workshop.