Build a Better Body Part II: Myth Busting the Abs

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Strong AbsJill Murphy, DPT, LAT, CSCS

Part of our Build A Better Body series.

There is so much in pop literature about the core and how to work the core to get those six pack abs, there really should be nothing more for me to add here, right? Oh, so wrong! Everything you hear and see in your local fitness gym is not at all what this article is about. Let me explain.

In the past 15 years, extensive research has been published regarding the abdominal muscles. I’m going begin to break it down for you here by giving you some anatomy background. Even though most of us have only heard of the rectus abdomins muscle (RA) aka, the six pack muscle we are all in search of, there are actually 3 other muscles that also make up the abdominal group of muscles in our trunk that are far more critical to stabilizing our trunk during functional activities. These muscles include the transversus abdominus (TA), aka, built-in back brace muscle, and the internal and external obliques.

AbsThe actions of these muscles can be determined by the direction of the muscles fibers that make up each muscle. For example, rectus abdominus muscle fibers run vertically from the bottom of your rib cage to the joint in the front of the base of your pelvis. This means that the action of this muscle is to flex your trunk- like bending forward to touch your toes. In contrast, transversus abdominus consists of fibers that run horizontally and are the deepest fibers in your abdominal group of muscles, acting to brace and hold in your abdominal contents, working synergistically with your back muscles to create a stable column of support around your trunk during every trunk and extremity movement you make. Just as their name suggests, the internal and external obliques run in an oblique or diagonal fashion, criss-crossing each other while connecting the rib cage and pelvis to provide further support to the trunk during functional activities when the trunk requires stability.

Once you know the anatomy, you will understand why I tell you that the crunches and sit-ups you may be doing or have done in the past need to go! Hard to believe that we can all donate our ab rollers to Goodwill guilt-free? The reason why? They only work the rectus abdominus, and some high quality research has shown that across the board, our rectus abdominus is already our strongest muscle and over-dominant compared to the other three abdominal muscle groups. Not only is the muscle already strong, but because of the direction of its muscle fibers, it does nothing to actually stabilize the spine. This makes the RA the one “core” muscle that really doesn’t function to assist the core. Not only that, it doesn’t need any more work because it already tends to be pretty strong, especially compared with the other three muscles in the abdominal group (there are exceptions to this rule, such as those who have been recently pregnant, or have undergone surgeries with incisions that have interrupted this muscle). For those of us in the general population and even those in the categories I just mentioned, further work to this area could actually further increase the muscle imbalance with the other abdominal muscles, actually reducing our core strength when we need it most to stabilize our spine.

AbsSo what should we be focusing on to improve our core abdominal strength? Research points to transversus abdominus as the primary spine stabilizing muscle, as our brain will actually activate this muscle to stabilize our trunk before we even activate a muscle anywhere else to perform our intended motor movement. The internal and external obliques assist in this process, but really TA is what we need to strengthen. Sadly, research shows that it is TA that tends to be the weakest of the four abdominal muscles, even if research subjects have never suffered a back injury. If you have a history of a back injury, many research subjects cannot effectively activate this muscle, as the body’s automatic system of pre-activation of the muscle to stabilize the trunk before performing other movements becomes reduced and interrupted by back pain. Even after you have recovered from a bout of back pain, research has shown that this pre-activation system does not return to pre-back pain status. The system remains dysfunctional without specific exercises to re-train this system. Enter this month’s Build a Better Body Exercises…

This month’s Build a Better Body exercises will help you learn how to activate transversus abdominus with the abdominal brace exercise, and then we will show you a few ways to progress this exercise by adding the moving weight of your legs while keeping your trunk and pelvis stable. A quick warning before we begin: you need some level of patience with this new exercise. As easy as it looks, to actually do it right, you will need a clear head and a lot of concentration, as this is actually one of the hardest exercises I teach. It takes patients and exercise clients alike about a week of daily practice to really get it and hone in on just activating transversus abdominus in relative isolation without also activating rectus abdominus at the same time. So be patient with yourself, and be ready to expend some mental energy as you learn to perform a completely different type of ab exercise! Remember to give yourself a week with the abdominal brace before moving on to the progressions with the leg lifts.

If these exercises seem too basic and too easy, don’t worry. These are the basic abdominal strengthening exercises to get you started. We will ramp them up as we continue along in our series. So get started with these, and we can challenge you further next month!

 

Abdominal Brace

Abdominal Brace

Position: Lying on your back with your knees bent

1. Pull in each side of your stomach towards your belly button, without moving your spine or your ribcage. Hint A: like you are hollowing each side of your stomach trying to create an hour glass figure. Hint B: It may help to try to feel the muscle as you try to activate it with your fingertips 3 inches laterally from your belly button on either side.

2. Hold for 5-10 seconds, without holding your breath.

3. Perform 2 sets of 10, 1-2x/day.

4. The ab brace may also be performed in sitting, standing, or lying on your stomach with a pillow under your stomach.

 

Abdominal Brace with Hip Flexion

Abdominal Brace with Hip Flexion

Position: Lying on your back with your knees bent

1. Begin with the abdominal brace.

2. Slowly and smoothly, lift one leg at the hip a few inches off the floor and then back down to the floor.

3. Repeat with the other leg while maintaining the ab brace. Remember to breathe.

4. Relax your brace.

5. Repeat steps 1-4. Perform 2 sets of 10, daily.

Goal: Your goal is to perform the exercise without shifting your pelvis or moving your spine (even a little) as you return one leg to the floor and lift the other between steps 2 and 3.

 

Abdominal Brace with Leg Lowering

Abdominal Brace with Leg LoweringAbdominal Brace with Leg Lowering

Position: Lying on your back with your knees bent

1. Begin with the abdominal brace.

2. Fully extend the knee of one leg, and then slowly lower the leg toward the floor until you feel that your spine and pelvis are about to lose their stable position, then slowly return your leg to the start position.

3. Repeat step 2 with the other leg while maintaining your ab brace. Remember to breathe.

4. Relax your brace.

5. Repeat steps 1-4. Perform 2 sets of 10, daily.

Goal: Your goal is to perform the exercise without shifting your pelvis or moving your spine (even a little) as you return one leg to the floor and lift the other between steps 2 and 3.

 

Read the Entire Build A Better Body Series

Part I Hips: Laying the Foundation
Part II: Myth Busting Abs
Part III: Stabilizing the Scapula: The Secret to Strong Shoulders
Part IV: Strengthening Stabilizing the Neck
Part V: The Big Picture
Part VI: Have a Ball
Part VII: Advanced Exercise Ball Routine

You can now Build A Better Body at MotionWorks by joining one of our Build A Better Body fitness classes!