Everybody wants to tone their abdominal muscles (abs). Strengthening the abs is important and has many benefits. Having a strong core provides better low back support, enhances sport performance, makes daily activities of living easier and even increases attractiveness. Whether your reasons for ab exercises are functional or aesthetic, there are some important things to know before you do another sit up or plank.
Isolated or Functional exercises?
Isolated exercise is specific to the muscle being worked and functional exercise is how you use the muscle(s) in every day life. You need both approaches. Crunches are a good isolated exercise because they focus on just the abdominal muscles. Using your abs in bigger exercises like push ups, wood chops, planks and during cardio is how abs are used in functional exercise. Isolated exercises are great as a warm-up to the larger, more functional exercises.
There’s more to it
It’s important to have a well-rounded fitness program. People often spend a big chunk of their workout doing crunches, planks and core exercise, while missing many of the other important components of fitness. Remember that cardio, balance, flexibility and strength training all contribute to being fit. In addition, eating well, lowering stress and having healthy relationships in the home and at work has been shown to help reduce keep abdominal fat.
The other side
Remember to work your lower back also. There is more to the core than the abs. Quadratus Lumborum, Multifidus, Iliocostalis, Longissimus and other “spinal erectors” make up your lower back muscles. They need strengthening as well. You can feel these muscles under your rib cage and on the vertebrae in your lower back. Lean to the side, arch your back gently or twist your spine with your hands on your low back to identify with them. Doing supermans while lying on your stomach will work these muscles. Be gently and ask a fitness trainer to check your form.
Know thy abs
Look up photos of each of these and learn where they attach so you can feel them when you’re working them. These are the muscles most people are looking to tone, yet they’re busy thinking about something else when working out. Learn where they attach and how to feel them contract. You can utilize them more effectively with awareness. In other words, crunch mindfully. Quality is always better than quantity when it comes to exercise.
- Rectus Abdominus – Your sternum is your breast bone, follow it down until it makes a point, called the xiphoid process. This is where your rib cage opens like a curtain. This muscle attaches there and goes down to your pubic bone. It has 8 sections, 4 on each side that are connected by ligaments. This muscle is easily felt in a crunch.
- Pyramidalis – This is a small muscle, commonly known as “lower abs”. It’s under the rectus abdmonius and attaches to the pubic bone, coming up to the line alba on each side. The line alba is the band of tendon that separates the left and right side of your abs. You can feel it by sinking your fingers into your belly at the midline (where you would cut your body into right and left halves).
- Internal Oblique – Attaching to the front of the ribs and opening around to the sides into the hip bones, this muscle is like a curtain opening to reveal your belly button.
- External Oblique – Think of putting your hands in your pockets. This muscles comes from the side of your ribs 8-12 and goes diagonally forward and down into the side of the rectus abdominus muscle. It looks like a V when both sides are viewed in an anatomy book.
- Transverse Abdominus – Ever seen a corset or someone wearing a weight lifting belt? This muscle is your own natural belt! It wraps around from the spinal vertebrae to the front of the body, inserting to the line alba (see pyramidalis).
It’s important to strengthen your abs, contract them during the day, but also to breathe and let it all hang out sometimes! Contract your abs to support your back (imagine someone punching you in the belly and how your abs would react). “Suck in” your abs infrequently. While you’re busy trying to look thin, you’re constricting your diaphragm and lungs from breathing. Oxygen is a crucial source of fuel for the body. It’s ok to tuck in that tummy when getting a photo taken or while giving a presentation, but it’s equally important to breathe. Find a balance between contracting the abs, sucking them in and letting them hang out.
Work your abs 2-3 times a week for 5-15 minutes within your fitness program and keep up the good work!