Let’s talk abs for a bit. Did you know that you have different kinds of abs that perform very different actions? There is the rectus abdominus, which are our 6-pack abs, that start just below our sternum and run down to our pubic bone. It is the rectus abdominus (RA) that people are talking about when they say, “check out his/her abs!” The true function of our RA is to curl our spine forward, bringing our ribs closer to our pelvis. Everytime we contract our RA, we compress our abdominal and pelvic cavities, increasing our intra-abdominal pressure. This increased intra-abdominal pressure can wreak havoc on our pelvic floor, on hernias, on hemmorrhoids, and on varicose veins on the lower half of our bodies. So, that rectus abdominus may be better left for looks, because the negatives of overusing this muscle definitely out weigh the positives.
We also have our internal and external oblique muscles, which run in a diagonal pattern on both sides of our midsection. I group the oblique muscles with the rectus abdominus because they also flex our spine forward (and rotate it to one side or the other). Our obliques, along with our rectus abdominus will tend to push our belly out, an obvious sign of increased pressure within our abdominal and pelvic cavities.
Now let’s talk about the good abs – our transversus abdominus (TA) or lower abs. These abs wrap around our lower abdomen like a back brace or a corset. Our transversus abdominus muscle draws our lower belly up and in acting like a compression stocking for our abdomen and pelvis. It puts a firm grip on our lower spine, providing a good anchor of stability for all of our other muscles to pull front, back, and side to side. This muscle may also increase our intra-abdominal pressure but it doesn’t press down on our pelvic floor. Rather, it displaces the pressure upward under our ribs. Our TA actually works in coordination with our pelvic floor muscles, and these two muscles naturally draw up from the bottom and draw in from the sides to give us the most stable base we can ask for with all the joints of the spine.
So, how do we work our abs properly to maximize the health of our lower back, upper back, neck, hips, and pelvic floor? Certainly, full sit-ups and crunches should be a thing of the past. A crunch is not our worst enemy if done properly, by drawing in your TA before contracting the rectus and curling up, but few people are able to perform this correctly without direct coaching, so it’s best to avoid doing them all-together if you are trying this on your own.
How do we strengthen our transversus abdominus? The easiest strengthening tool for this muscle is to use it throughout your day. This means that whenever you think of it, just draw your belly button up and in, pulling everything in like a vacuum from the bottom, up. CAUTION: This does not mean that you tuck your tail bone under to draw your belly in toward your spine. On the contrary, your back should not move from your optimal posture or neutral spine that we have talked about at length in several of my previous blog entries. Rather, use your muscle, your TA, to draw your belly button up and in. You will feel how this tightens up your lower abdomen. You will also feel the pull in your low back as the TA wraps around to attach to the thoracolumbar fascia and co-contracts with your multifidi muscles to hold that spine right where we want it. As you get more comfortable with this TA contraction, you will also feel your pelvic floor engage or “turn on,” drawing to a more flat position automatically without any effort from you.
Although the frequent activation of our TA throughout our daily activities is probably the best method to strengthen your TA, sometimes focused activation with specific exercises is the good way to start until it becomes second nature. Below, I have 4 exercises that will get you started.
1.) Hands and Knees Transversus Abdominus Lift. Position yourself on your hands and knees,relaxing your upper and lower back down until you achieve a flat back position. In this position, draw your belly button up and in as if hollowing out your mid section.
If you have access to a mirror, a side view will allow you to see the muscles activate to draw your belly up into a tighter position with no movement of your back. Again I want to emphasize that this should not involve any movement of your back, just your midsection cinching up as if being tightened by a belt or a corset. Hold your abdomen drawn up and in for a full 5 count, while continuing with a steady breathing pattern before you release.
2.) Quadriped TA Lift: In a 4-point kneeling position (meaning, on hands and knees), with elbows slightly bent, pull your belly button in toward your spine and lift your knees, ever so slightly off the ground. The subtle lift automatically activates your TA. Two keys to remember: 1. Keep breathing! 2. Just clear the ground with your knees. If you lift too far, you will flex your spine and activate your rectus abdominus.
3.) Plank holds – Posting on bent elbows and knees, keep your body straight by tightening your abdominals and glutes, pulling your bellybutton toward your spine. Hold this position for 30 seconds, being careful to not let your back sag. You want to work up to 2 minute holds, with any kind of a back ache being your cue to stop the hold. Once you can hold for 2 min.utes, progress to posting on your elbows and toes and again increase your time as you are able.
4.) Straight leg raise with hip external rotation – (3 sets of 10 repetitions) Lying on your back with one knee bent, point the toe of your straight leg and rotate your foot out. Pull your bellybutton toward your spine and place your hands on your lower belly to feel that your belly does not push out as you lift your leg. Tighten the top of your thigh, and slowly lift your straight leg up until it is even with your bent thigh. Hold for a two-count and return to starting position and repeat.
So after you have time to absorb all the information I have given above, let’s just simplify for a minute. Throughout your day, as you engage your transversus abdominus, you always want to feel things drawing in and lifting upward. If you at any time feel a pressure down on your pelvic floor or you feel your belly push outward, you need to stop and reset your abs.