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Strong abdominal muscles (along with the lower back) support our core. The core is important for postural support and balance. We need to know about these four muscles and how to take care of them:
- the rectus abdominis;
- the transverse abdominis; and,
- the internal and external obliques.
The Rectus Abdominis
The rectus abdominis runs from the breastbone and fifth, sixth and seventh ribs to the top of the pubic bone. It flexes the lower back, assists with breathing, and assists in respiration. You’re very grateful to have it working — and working well — when you get out of bed in the morning, but it is not as critical for posture as the other abdominal muscles.
When people talk about having a "washboard" look, they are talking about this muscle.
The Transverse Abdominis (TVA)
The transverse abdominis helps give us good posture by supporting and protecting the spine. It is important during exhalation (especially during exercise); it holds in the internal organs, assists in childbirth; and you’ll notice it when vomiting (which hopefully you don’t do often!).
It runs horizontally, and covers the entire abdomen, holding its contents in like a girdle, and wraps around the sides of the body. It attaches along the rib cage and into the back muscles. When you suck in your stomach, you are using your transverse abdominis.
Internal and External Obliques
The internal obliques run along the side of your body diagonally from the pelvis and ribs to the rear of the rectus abdominis. 2 They provide a layer of support over the TVA and act as an opposing muscle to the diaphragm, helping to reduce the volume of the chest cavity during exhalation and increasing volume during inhalation.
The external obliques pull the chest downwards and compress the abdominal cavity. They also have limited actions in both flexion and rotation of the spine.
Working together, the obliques also help to turn the rib cage.
How do we keep our abdominals Strong?
Tip 1: Work Out With Weights
All weight-lifting exercises will work your abs because you must stabilize your core muscles to perform the movements correctly. As well, if you are sitting on a ball or standing on a half-roller (or even standing on one foot) while doing strength exercises, you will work your abdominal muscles.
How often should you lift weights? Studies indicate that you need to do it two to three times a week. Just remember that weight lifting alone is not enough; it must be in combination with aerobic training and good nutrition.
Tip 2: Use Proper Form in any Abdominal Exercise
No matter what exercise you choose to do, it’s important to do it correctly. If you do it wrong, you are defeating the purpose. Here are some things to remember:
- Support your neck properly or you will harm it.
- Do not allow your head to be yanked.
- Keep your head in alignment with your spine.
- Don’t lock your feet under a chair or have someone hold them. If the feet are locked, another muscle (the iliopsoas) will do all the work.
- If you feel back pain, the iliopsoas is probably pulling on the lumbar vertebrae. To prevent this, you must maintain a tight transverse abdominis.
Tip 3: Get Cardiovascular Exercise
Cardiovascular exercise is part of your three-pronged program to good health: good nutrition, strength training, and aerobics. You need to do cardiovascular exercise about three times a week. Use it as a tool and do not assume that you must “do as much as possible” every day. Research shows that taking thirty-minute walks three times a week will make a difference.
Other research suggests that cardiovascular exercise helps control visceral fat which is located deeper in the body and is more dangerous than subcutaneous fat (near the skin) because it accumulates around the internal organs.
Tip 4: Try these abdominal exercises. They’re some of the best!
- 45-degree Side Leg Lift: Lie on your side and bring the legs forward to a 45-degree angle. Lift the top leg up first, then have the bottom leg join the first. Let both legs come down together. For a more difficult exercise, lift both legs at the same time.
- Reverse Crunch: The Reverse Crunch is a difficult exercise but, when done correctly, it is a great abdominal exercise. The full reverse crunch begins on your back with your legs straight up in the air. To avoid using your hands, you can turn the palms up and place the arms out to the side (in a “T” fashion). In a smooth motion, push the feet up. Do not rock! It is a push (the abs are pulling your bottom off the floor). Variations include lifting the head and neck at the same time, or doing it with bent knees if it is too difficult with straight legs.
- Leg Circles: To perform this exercise, begin on your back on the mat. Extend one leg straight in the air, keeping the other flat on the floor. Circle the top leg and be sure to stabilize the hips. Keep the arms at the side with the palms up which prevents the arms and hands from doing the stabilizing.
- Ab Lean: Stand up tall and pull your transverse abdominis in and up (just below your navel). Lean back a little keeping those abdominals tight. Return to an upright position. This is a very small move and not meant to arch the back. You can also do this exercise on a ball.
- Ab Tuck: Stand up and lean forward to reach a desk or table. Arms should be straight, bend knees slightly to avoid overextension. Suck in your stomach (or lift up your stomach) and hold for a count of ten. Then release. Repeat as many times as you wish, but do not hold your breath.
Tip 5: While strengthening the abdominals, you must also strengthen their opposing muscles.
For the Erector Spinae and the Multifidus, the Superman Pose: Get on your hands and knees and extend the right hand out, palm facing in, and the left leg out. Hold and breathe. Then change arm and leg. Repeat on both sides again, as often as you would like. See also: The Erector Spinae: Spine Muscles
For gluteus maximus, the One-leg squat or Deadlift squat: Weights in hands with arms straight down, palms in. Lift one leg and do a short squat with the other leg. Do the same number on each leg. If a one-leg squat is too challenging, just make it a deadlift squat: same hand and weight position, but both legs stay on the floor. Do not bend over; keep the head up, the angle of the back to the hips will be slight, but shoulders should remain up. See also: The Glutes
For the trapezius, the Shoulder Shrug: With weights in hands, lower arms to straight and turn palms in. Lift up shoulders, hold, and release. Repeat 8-12 times. See also: The Trapezius and the Rhomboids
For the multifidus, the Opposite Arm and Leg Raise: Lie face down on the mat and let your head stay in line with your spine (nose almost touching the mat). Raise one arm, palm facing in, and the opposite leg. Hold for 5 seconds. Do on opposite side. Repeat as many times as you can tolerate, usually about 10 times.
For the latissimus dorsi, the Lat Pulldown: Hold on to a extension band with both hands (about shoulder-distance apart), keep arms straight and raise them to shoulder height. Keep one arm straight and hold the band in one hand while you pull the rope towards your shoulder with the other hand (like bowing the string on a bow). Repeat on opposite side. Do as many repetitions as you can tolerate (usually between 8 and 12). See also: Latissimus Dorsi: The Lats
Other pages about other muscles:
- The Adductors
- The Deltoids
- The Erector Spinae: Spine Muscles
- The Forearm, Elbow, and Wrist
- The Glutes
- The Hamstrings: Back of the Thigh
- The Hip Flexors
- Latissimus Dorsi: The Lats
- The Lower Leg: The Calf and the Shin
- Muscles of the Head
- Opposing Muscles
- Pectoralis Major and Minor: The Pecs
- The Quadriceps: The Front of the Thigh
- Taking Care of your Feet
- The Trapezius and the Rhomboids
- The Upper Arm: The Biceps and the Triceps
I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.