Q+A: How can I flatten my stomach?

Q After a year of running I’ve managed to tone up my legs and bottom, but my stomach has not improved and remains ‘potty’. I find sit-ups very hard and therefore don’t bother with them. Will toning up my abdominals actually improve my running, and what can I do to improve them?

A There are four abdominal muscles, and the so called ‘six-pack’, or rectus abdominus, that so many people desire is actually the most superficial of these. There are three sheets of muscles, each progressively deeper, that wrap around the whole abdomen; imagine a weightlifting belt made of muscle, but deep inside, attached to the spine, pelvis and rib cage. These layers of muscles have fibres that hollow or flatten the lower abdomen as well as controlling rotary movements of the trunk and pelvis. These are the external and internal obliques and the transverse abs.

These are the muscles you should be concentrating on because they are slow-twitch muscles that can sustain the low levels of effort required to maintain your posture for long periods with minimal fatigue. This is essential for the ‘aesthetics’ you’re talking about but more importantly for maintaining the dynamic control of your posture while running. This is vital for injury prevention as well as energy efficiency and improved performance. In contrast, exercising the six-pack by doing sit-ups will only get you better at doing sit-ups.

Here are some easy exercises to get you started: to condition your transverse abdominals, kneel on all-fours, maintaining a neutral spine (a very gentle inward curve in the lower back). Relax your lower abdominals, then gently flatten (without bracing) below the belly button towards your back. Try to keep the ‘six-pack’ muscles, your breathing and your diaphragm relaxed. This should not produce any movement – it’s a static muscle activation.

Start by trying to hold for 10 x 10 seconds, with a few seconds’ rest between activations, and repeat several times a day.

To train the obliques, lie on your back with one leg straight and the other bent to about 90 degrees. Keeping your pelvis level, push your fingers into the transverse abs (inside the bony front of the pelvis and below the belly button) and place your thumbs into the obliques (on your sides above the pelvis). With your breathing and six- pack relaxed, gently flatten the transverse abdominals away from your fingers. Slowly let the leg rotate to the side before bringing it back again – you should feel the obliques brace. Start by repeating sets of one minute on each side.

Progress in both exercises by gradually increasing the amount of time. Then visit a physiotherapist with good experience in training muscle balance and core stability who’ll teach you how to recruit the transverse and oblique abdominals. Once you have proper control of them, your tummy will flatten and you’ll start to notice a more efficient running style and, hopefully, improved performances.—Nick Critchley, physiotherapist and exercise physiologist at Medifit medical and fitness centre, London