This Review Originally Appeared in "Habibi" written by Andy Troy
The human body is an amazing machine. It is a complex collection of moving parts carefully designed to get us where we want to go. It consists of 206 bones and more than 600 muscles working together as one, with the whole thing made up of more than 60 percent water. At the core of this miracle of engineering are the abdominals. The abdominal muscles, or abs as they are often called, work with their neighboring muscle groups to hold it all together. They are the sole source of stability for the abdomen, a region of the body where no bones are present. In addition, they create or control a variety of movements that take the torso in an assortment of different directions.
While working as a consultant with Neon on the Bellydance for Body Shaping DVD series, our goal was to take key muscle groups, often targeted by the fitness world, and use bellydance movements to develop them in their natural, functional context. We wanted to create routines that were both an effective form of exercise and at the same time contained moves well known to the bellydance community. We welcomed the challenge. What do instructors say about the bellydance/abs connection? I asked Elsa Leandros, a New York-based teacher of bellydance, flamenco, and world fusion dance. "We use the abdominal muscles perhaps more than any dance style, be it ballet, modern dance, flamenco, hip-hop, jazz, Balinese, etc.," she claimed. "Upper body circles and undulations, both regular and reverse, plus all the many different hip accents such as twists and drops, all require the involvement of the abdominal muscles one way or another."
When the question was put to Jehan Kamel, she also noted the importance of training the abdominals. “The abs are critical if you want to have incredibly good undulations and body waves. You need alert abs to perform quick, hard accents and locks of the chest and the gut. This is very important for dancers to catch the rhythm and the accents. The abs are also very important, along with the back, in performing folkloric-type moves such as chest lifts and drops." She also pointed out that appearances can be deceiving. "You can be beautifully voluptuous, and even heavy, and still have toned abdominal muscles. There are large dancers who still have firm musculature underneath. One thing has nothing to do with the other."
As a personal trainer, you learn early on that when trying to effectively develop specific muscles or groups of muscles, two things are critical: first, to understand exactly how each one works, and second, to define how they relate to the planned activity. With this goal in mind, we'll now analyze the abdominals, what they are and what they do, before looking at how to develop them through bellydance.
The abdominals consist of several layers of muscle with fibers running in a number of different directions. The most superficial, or closest to the body's surface, is the rectus abdominis, which means "straight abdominal." The rectus is a narrow, flat muscle and is also the muscle most visible to us. It is the one often referred to as your "six pack." Its cube-like appearance is actually the result of three tendons which cross the rectus' vertical fibers. This muscle has several key functions, most importantly spinal flexion. Any time you bend forward from the waist, whether you're doing a crunch or just getting up off of the couch, the rectus is a prime mover for that movement. In addition, it assists in lateral flexion when starting from a neutral spinal position, and helps rotate your torso back to neutral. Your rectus, along with your other spinal flexors, is also crucial in maintaining a healthy back. In addition to offering support each time your abdominals contract, your lower-back muscles are effectively stretched.
Next we have the external obliques, muscles whose fibers angle downward diagonally and wrap around the side of your trunk. Not only are they a prime mover in pure spinal flexion, but also in both lateral flexion and rotation of your torso to the opposite side. Beneath them lie the internal obliques. They attach in almost the same place but their fibers run up instead of down to wrap around the front of your trunk. They too are a prime mover for spinal flexion as well as lateral flexion and rotation to the same side. In essence, when rotating your torso, your internal and external obliques counterbalance each other, improving stability. When both contract they compress the abdominal cavity, which also stabilizes the region.
A good way to visualize these two musdes is to picture yourself wearing a pair of pants with both front and back pockets. Now picture the angled fibers of the external obliques running across your body into the front pockets while the internal obliques do the same into the back pockets of your pants. When training the obliques there is one concern worth noting. People often labor under the misconception that by excessive resistance training of the obliques through trunk rotation (broomstick twists, nautilus machine) or lateral flexion (side bends with a dumbbell in your hand), you can specifically target the fat deposits that have developed along the sides of your waist (love handles) for reduction. This process is called spot reduction and is a physiological impossibility. You cannot target specific concentrations of body fat through a specific exercise. This is a fact that any scrupulous and competent fitness professional should make clear. The good news, however, is that all exercise will help reduce all fat deposits by creating a calorie deficit. If you take in fewer calories than you burn, your body will draw on its fat stores to meet the demand. As a result, a well-balanced routine of strength, flexibility (stretching), and endurance training (cardio) is the best path to take.
An abdominal muscles we don't often hear about is the quadratus lumborum, a square muscle that runs from the lower border of the rib cage to the upper border of the hip; yet its proper development is crucial to the health of your back. Its main function is as a prime mover in lateral flexion. When it is underdeveloped or inflexible, it can contribute to lower-back pain by pulling your hips out of alignment. Finally there is the transversus abdominus, the deepest layer of abdominal muscle. Its horizontal fibers ring your abdomen, providing beltlike support. The weight belts often used in gyms are in essence mimicking the transversus abdominus' natural function. There are no specific movement patterns for developing it since it's not directly involved in joint motion; however, placing your body in an unstable environment such as exercising on a stability ball or, for that matter, dancing, forces this core muscle to "kick in" and stabilize the movement.
There are other muscles that are not part of your abdominals but because of their relationship to them are worth mentioning. They include:
Erector Spinae: The primary muscle involved in lower back extension, its most important role is that of stability. Good dance posture, whicl1 holds you upright against the force of gravity, is effective in developing this muscle.
Iliopsoas: These are the primary hip flexors. Most people don't need to develop them since a sedentary lifestyle often leaves them overdeveloped and tight, thereby putting pressure on the lower back. Stretching them, therefore, is important. This can be done through hip extension, which effectively stretches the opposing flexors. Any move where you forcefully extend. your leg behind your torso will be effective. Examples are a hip lift with a push towards the back, used in some traveling steps, as well as an elongated knee walk, a move used in floorwork.
Multifidus: This muscle group is a prime mover in back extension as well as rotation of the spine to the opposite side. It also serves as an important stabilizer during functional movements, making dance an effective way of developing it.
The question is how you can now take this knowledge and combine it with bellydance movements in order to effectively develop your abdominals, thereby improving your level of fitness. Let us now look at some standard moves you can use or might already be incorporating into your routine that can help get the job done.
Flexion (rectus abdominus, internal and external obliques). Some of the moves that will work here are undulations and reverse undulations, as well as the stomach flutter and the stomach roll.
Lateral Flexion (internal and external obliques, quadratus lumborum). Good choices include:
Torso Rotation (internal and external obliques, erector spinae, multifidus). A common entrance involving torso rotation is a shuffle step, with the dancer twisting side to side. Other options are upper-body figure eights with a hair toss and side undulations.
It's worth noting that often in dance, as in life, your movement patterns can be quite complex, forcing many muscles to work together in different capacities to get the job done. An example would be a barrel turn, which involves the rectus for stability and the obliques for movement. Neon points out that when doing any movement involving a back tilt or a backbend, you use your abdominals for stability, because "if not, you'd collapse." Examples she gives are a hip circle with a torso drop and a back tilt with a shoulder shimmy or hip drop.
In conclusion, the abdominals play a significant role in many bellydance movements. Traditional methods of training them, such as crunches and the ab roller, are valid and should be included in any balanced fitness routine. However, if your goal is to be a better dancer, then training muscles in the way that you plan to use them is important. For those who are not serious dancers, training your abs through bellydance offers variety, which keeps your routine from becoming stale and your fitness gains from reaching a plateau.