Aesthetic Exercise

What’s the connection between diagnostic ultrasound, abdominal muscles and aesthetics?

Straight Back Physiotherapists use diagnostic ultrasound to examine the deep abdominal muscle corset that encircles the belly. This is a fundamental concept to body aesthetics because this deep abdominal muscle corset not only trims the belly contour, but promotes ‘truncal verticality’ for improved postural form and resilience against gravity. Diagnostic ultrasound enables the physiotherapist and patient to directly visualise the inner layers of the abdominal wall muscles that can’t be seen from the exterior to diagnose muscle recruitment problems, and then restore function to the muscle. Function and aesthetics can comfortably co-exist in the human body. This is because this deep abdominal corset (transversus abdominis) is not only responsible for improving the look of your body, but the performance of your body. This muscle protects and stabilises your spine, improves postural control and in doing so reduces pain, wear and tear and increases the durability of the spine.

What determines a person’s postural form and aesthetic presentation?

Posture is defined as the manner in which a person carries and expresses their bodily form, and develops through genetics, learning and life experience. Posture determination is partly physical and partly psychological. We all know that children look like their parents. Is this due to genetic inheritance or learned behaviour? The answer is both. Successive generations will always carry-on the strengths and weaknesses of physical characteristics of the parents, eg. the shape of the face, trunk vs leg length, knee alignment, etc. Unless you engage in genetic selection and controlled breeding, these will be predetermined variables. Children will also tend to learn posture and movement patterns through interaction with parents as role models, as well as peers and significant others. Children will often be exposed to the same diets, sports, education, climates, socioeconomics, jobs and beliefs/attitudes as their parents, and all these things will influence physical and psychological development and therefore posture.

Posture is said to be the mirror of the soul, and so psychological and relationship development including attitude, confidence, self-esteem, body image etc, will have major impact on how a person carries and expresses their body. Even though physiotherapists are physical therapists, the impact of these psychological influences on posture and aesthetics is too fundamental to ignore. Obvious examples of this are the young rebellious teenager overtly expressing ‘attitude’ with his body language, or the young girl who is lacking body confidence because of height and breast development in advance of her peers. Our posture will also be influenced by the physical tasks that we expose our body to, with a basic premise being that the body’s physical form will adapt to the requirements of the task that we repeat the most. An obvious example is a ballet dancer; even at an early age, you can tell one from a mile off because of the way that they’ve conditioned their body to develop to suit the needs of the discipline. Another example will be the 30-something plus year-old worker who has spent significant time stooped over a desk-based job. Their body will display evidence of these sustained physical demands. Similarly our posture will be a function of the physical injuries and conditions incurred along the path of life, eg. the motor bike rider who badly breaks a leg, the child who falls off playground equipment and injuries their back, the women who has multiple abdominal surgeries. Posture and therefore aesthetic appearance will also be dramatically effected by the exercises we perform, and this is where sound physiotherapy examination and advice is essential to guide the best exercises for your body’s performance and aesthetic development.

What is the impact of exercise on abdominal muscle tone, posture and aesthetics?

For the purposes of this discussion, it is important to understand ‘phasic’ and ‘tonic’ muscles.

  • Phasic muscles are the more external muscles on the trunk (obliques and rectus abdominis). They are relaxed at rest, then contract on request to produce torque and power to move the trunk. In training these muscles respond to high-load exercise such as crunches, sit-ups and high-load stability exercise.
  • Tonic muscle (transversus abdominis) is the internal muscle that is operated by the subconscious part of the brain at constant, low tone to support the trunk and provide stability and protection. These muscles are switched off by pain and by dominant phasic muscles. These muscles do not respond to high-load exercise. To retrain these muscles requires precision and endurance to re-establish a last-all-day contraction that functions automatically.

Over-recruited and over-active phasic trunk muscles will induce a flexion force within the trunk and encourage the vertical trunk posture to collapse under gravity. This will bring the chest cavity closer to the pelvis, and produce redundancy in the belly wall. This is how people who perform excessive crunches and alike can have a six pack and pot belly at the same time. Also, over-exercising of the powerful, phasic muscles of the trunk, particularly with current or past history of back pain, will inhibit the transversus abdominis corset muscle function, causing the lower belly wall corset to ‘switch off’ and become redundant, ie. pot belly. High-load exercise will not switch the transversus abdominis muscle back on, it will inhibit it further.

What do I expect from the ultrasound session?

  • Expect to learn about the structure of your abdominal wall muscles and the difference between phasic and tonic portions.
  • Expect to be able to directly visualise these muscles in function, and use the visual feedback to ensure you are contracting the muscle correctly.
  • Expect to learn about the impact that functioning and not functioning muscles will have on your posture, abdominal wall tone, appearance and safe functioning of the spine.
  • Expect to learn about different sorts of exercises to correct poorly functioning deep abdominal muscle corsets to improve the tone of your belly and correct postural faults.

What should I not expect from the ultrasound session?

Use of diagnostic ultrasound to examine and retrain the deep abdominal muscle corset will effect the contour of your belly, but it will not deal with that portion of your pot belly that is due to fatty tissue. For this component you will still need to reduce calories by diet and aerobic exercise, or reduce fatty deposits by liposuction. Diagnostic ultrasound will not instantly fix your posture and abdominal corset tone. It will require persistence and discipline to effect a change over time. In regard to back pain, diagnostic ultrasound is not the panacea. It is an important component of management of back pain, but only a component.

Will I have exercises to perform?

Yes, but they won’t be high-load, sweaty and painful exercises as you would perform in the gym. Exercises for tonic muscles are more about skill, precision, persistence and re-establishing new habits and behaviours. This does not mean you can’t perform high-load exercises as well. It is often necessary to work these muscles depending on your sporting or occupational demands, but these muscles shouldn’t be worked at exception of the tonic muscles, but with them, and most importantly, the right muscle for the right job.