Let’s face it – we all want flat abs. For most of us, that means that we don’t want our belly gutting out over our pants/jeans. For some of us on the other hand – we want a little more than flat abs. We want those 6 pack, rippling, hard abs – toned abdominals. As much as having flat abs is great, it’s also important to know what and how exactly our abdominals work and how to get a stronger and more functional core. In other words, what does our core muscles really mean?
Very often in a fitness class or at the gym, we’re often cued – “Use your core”, “Scoop your abs in”, “Draw your belly button down to your spine”, “Tighten your abdominals” etc. but it’s not as easy as just scooping your abs in. You see, our abdominals consist of 4 layers – 4 abdominal muscles that wrap around our trunk like a girdle. This girdle reaches from the sides of your thorax (mid spine, rib area) all around to the front, up and down from your sternum to your pubic bone in all directions. Think of these 4 muscles wrapping around vertically, horizontally and in diagonal directions the same way you would pack and tape a box going on a long journey.
Your abs consist of 4 muscles known as: Transverse Abdominis, Internal and External Obliques, and Rectus Abdominis (Going from the deepest layer to the outermost layer).
Transverse Abdominis (T.A.) – Your core, deep stabilizer muscle
This muscle is known to be the main stabilizer muscle for your lower back/lumbar spine and pelvis. It wraps around horizontally like a belt and doesn’t cause any movement. However, it should be active when your body is moving in any direction and should be the first muscle to fire before any of the outer muscles. The T.A. is also associated with the firing of your pelvic floor muscle. There are other functions of the T.A. as well like respiratory breathing and support of your abdominal contents. In other words, this muscle is important for stabilizing your back and hips before any movement of your body in whatever direction.
Your internal obliques run diagonally inwards and upwards. Together, they flex the spine forward. By itself, it is used to flex your spine to the side (lateral flexion) and rotate your spine to the same side.
Your external oblique runs diagonally inwards and downwards. Together, they flex your spine forward. By itself, it is used to flex your spine to the side (lateral flexion) and rotate your spine to the opposite side.
Your obliques are responsible for most of your twisting and side bending actions.
Rectus Abdominis – your 6 pack muscle
This muscle run vertically and is the outermost muscle. It only causes spinal flexion and is known as the 6 pack muscle (8 pack?). Most people only work this muscle and the obliques but it’s really important to incorporate the use of the T.A. muscle as well so your ab muscles are more stronger, durable and more functional – not only giving you flat abs but also protecting you from lower back pain/injury. Your rectus abs are generally strong as it’s a big muscle – work now on strengthening your T.A. and obliques.
Working your abs doesn’t just involve hundreds of sit-ups – it’s boring and most likely, you will overuse your hip flexors and not really work your abs. While exercises like the pilates Ab Prep, Hundreds and Roll Ups are great, I love working the obliques and challenging your abs in other planes as well. Great exercises to improve your core will be doing any plank work, side planks and other rotational movement. Try holding your planks for 30 seconds and then extending it to 1 minute. Of course you need to hold good form – don’t compromise how long you can hold it for if you can’t hold it in good alignment. You might as well not do it at all!
Now every time you work your abs, just think “Draw up pelvic floor and activate T.A. first, then obliques criss-crossing muscle wrapping around your trunk and then 6 pack muscle to flex forward.” Don’t let your rectus abdominis pop out – imagine hollowing your abs down or pull your navel in toward the spine. You should be able to breathe freely too so don’t hold your breath – good luck to getting those flat abs!