Welcome to Kelsie's Barre! As you embark on a fitness routine, obtaining flat abs seems to be everyone's #1 priority, so let's delve deep into abdominal health and anatomy! I think it’s important to remember now, especially when we are bombarded with images and messages of how we “should” look, that strengthening your abdominal muscles, or your “core,” is not only desirable aesthetically, but also crucial for an individual’s general well-being and health.
The corresponding abdominal health pictures will guide you through the most effective exercises that target your stomach muscles that will not only create some heat in the body but will also help with your overall health.
The abdomen is considered part of our “trunk” or our torso—this is our “core” or central part of our bodies - the body parts extending from the neck down to the groin, including the back/spine, abdomen, shoulders, and chest, as well as some of the internal organs in this region. Today, we will be focusing on the anterior (front of the body) trunk muscles. The main functions of these muscles include protecting and keeping in place the internal organs of the abdomen, core stability, respiration, and bending/twisting/stabilization of the torso.
Our intercostal muscles lie below the pectoral muscles and form the chest wall and play an integral part in respiration. There are three layers of the intercostal muscles—external, internal, and innermost which all function to elevate and/or depress the ribs to accommodate for the movement of the lungs during breathing. Poor posture can cause the intercostal muscles to tighten and affect the amount of air taken in by the lungs—deep breathing, twisting, and side-bending exercises help stretch these muscles.
This seated twist is not only a great way to stretch the intercostal muscles but also the spine, neck, and shoulders, as well as stimulate the internal organs that the abdominal muscles shield like the kidneys and liver and can also aid digestion.
The diaphragm is the large, flat muscle extending underneath the rib-cage. Functionally, the purpose of the diaphragm is to separate the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity, but because of its positioning, it also aids in respiration. When the diaphragm contracts, air is drawn into the lungs and it relaxes on the exhalation so air can be pushed out of the lungs.
The four main muscles that comprise the abdominal wall are the external and internal obliques, rectus abdominis, and the transversus abdominis. The external obliques are one of the largest muscles of the trunk; they extend from the lower half of the ribs and down to the pelvis on each side of the body. They aid in flexion and rotation of the trunk, help pull the chest downward to compress the abdominal cavity, and also play a minor role in supporting the spine. As the name implies, the internal obliques are smaller and lie with fibers that run in the opposite direction which helps improve the strength of the abdominal wall. They also aid in flexion and rotation of the trunk, deep breathing, and protection of internal organs. Exercises that involve rotation and engagement of the side-body strengthen the obliques which are not only physically desirable but also helps improve overall posture, prevent injuries, and pain in the back and shoulders.
SIDE PLANK HIP DIPS
In your forearm side plank, be sure to keep your elbow in line with your shoulder and be mindful not to “dump” your body weight downwards collapsing your shoulder up towards your ear. Just holding your body in this position, holding your hips up and contracting your core will strengthen and tighten the obliques as well as the shoulders, legs, and back muscles. For an added bit of spiciness, after 30-60 seconds of a static hold, dip the hips down and up for small isometric contraction of the obliques.
Bicycle crunches are one of the most effective abdominal exercises around because they hit up all muscles of the abdomen—the rotation of opposite elbow to knee engages the obliques and intercostal muscles. In order to get the most out of this exercise, you should move slowly and with intention. Focus on your alignment and do not let your elbows creep inwards towards your ears, keep your spine neutral and chin tucked in slightly as if you had a ball in between the chin and the chest, this will help keep your chest open and take away any tension or strain from the spine.
Although you probably don’t realize rotation of our body is essential to everyday life, you unconsciously do it all the time during routine tasks such as turning in someone else’s direction to talk to them, turning over to grab the television remote, and so on. Spinal rotation is especially crucial for athletes engaging in sports like swimming, baseball, hockey, tennis, and golf, and oblique strain and other injuries are extremely common in those who play these sports. Often, athletes and non-athletes alike will rotate from the lumbar spine, which causes strain to the lower back. Repetitively engaging in improper rotation from this region can cause chronic lower back pain that can easily be avoided by simply stabilizing the lower back/core and rotating from the mid-upper back. There are countless benefits to increased thoracic spine mobility including combating poor posture/kyphosis (bowing/slouching of the upper back), stability in the lumbar spine, increased range of motion, as well as increased lung capacity.
This stretch opens up the thoracic spine, shoulders, chest, arms, and neck and releases tension help between the scapulae. This stretch is particularly beneficial for those who work a desk job or have poor posture.
Your spine should remain straight when performing rotation exercises. Flexion, or rounding of the spine, not only does not target your abs, but it also creates unnecessary stress on your lower back as well as your cervical spine (neck). Avoid excessive flexion (chin in towards the chest) and extension (chin up towards the sky) as both can cause stiffness and pain in the neck and upper back.
WRONG WAY TO DO OBLIQUE TWIST
Spine is rounded, chin is tucked under, shoulders are lifted, chest is compressed, and rotation is not isolated.
RIGHT WAY TO DO OBLIQUE TWIST
Spine is neutral, chin is slightly tucked under, shoulders are down and away from the ears, collarbones are broadened, chest is open, pelvis/lumbar spine stabilized and rotation is coming from thoracic spine/upper body, back is not down too low to the ground.
The rectus abdominis is the superficial layer of the abdominal muscles closest to the surface; these are what become visible and create “six-pack abs” when toned. These muscles begin near the pubic bone and extend all the way up to the sternum. They flex the trunk and lumbar spine as well as control the tilt of the pelvis (pulling the ribcage closer to the pelvis). In addition, due to their location when contracted, they are engaged during exhalation, childbirth, bowel movements, urination, and coughing (the coughing reflex can be impaired if abdominal muscles are weak). Exercises such as plank variations, sit-ups, and crunches aid in reducing the fat layers around this muscle and give the stomach a flatter and more defined appearance.
SIT UP WITH LEG LIFT
This v-up variation targets both the deep and superficial abdominal muscles and the added bonus of lifting one leg up also provides the practitioner with hamstring mobility/flexibility training as well.
The transversus abdominis (TA) is the deepest of all of the abdominal muscles and run vertically between the hips and the ribs. The TA is often referred to as the “corset” of our body, it begins near the pubic joint, extends all the way upwards towards the breast-bone, and then wraps around the hip bones and all the way around to connect with the fascia of the thoracic spine. Since it interlocks with the diaphragm muscles, this structure is also involved with the breathing process, aiding in exhalation and the compression of various internal organs. Its main function though is to anticipate motion and activate the core accordingly to stabilize the pelvis and low back before any movement of the body. Your stomach becomes flatter as the TA tightens and presses downwards towards your spine thus stabilizing and provided support to the back-body (this is why strengthening the TA may alleviate back pain). Although most people think of the rectus abdominis as the “six-pack abs,” strengthening and sculpting the TA is the key to achieving them and more definition in your core. That said, because of how deep these muscles are, it is much more difficult to engage this part of the abdominal muscles. Any abdominal exercises that place focus on bracing and hollowing out the core (as opposed to flexing the stomach which targets that superficial layer of the abdomen muscles) help activate this muscle. A lot of the core training seen in Pilates classes are highly effective in toning these areas. Various leg lifts and crunches with pulsing variations where you envision drawing your navel all the way up towards the spine are the best way to target them. The more you practice this you will create muscle memory and always engage your core in all your movements throughout the day. Of course, it is also important to remember that diet also plays a huge role in the formation of visible abdominal muscles.
PLANK WITH LEG LIFT PULSES
While a static hold plank is certainly effective this plank with leg lift pulses will definitely have you feeling the burn—anything that requires balance engages the core deeply in order to super your body. This variation also engages the glutes, shoulders, and arms which activates the TA even more. As always in a plank you want to make sure your spine is neutral (no arch in the lower back and chin is slightly tucked under), shoulders in line with the wrists and pushing your weight upwards as opposed to “dumping” weight downwards into the earth, and keeping your pelvis even (not opening out to either the left or right side).
Strengthening the TA is also extremely beneficial for any women who have ever given birth because, during pregnancy, the stomach expands, and the abdominals stretch while the muscles in the back shorten, ligaments and joints in the pelvis become unstable and the pelvic floor weakens. A structure known as the linea alba that runs down the midline of the abdomen loses its strength during pregnancy. Due to its location, exercises that place focus on strengthening the TA muscle help restore the linea alba.
A common complaint that I often hear from students performing abdominal exercises is that they are feeling it more in their hip flexors than the abdominals. Often this is from beginners who have a weak core and try to overcompensate by activating their hip flexors and thus, will not reap the benefits of the exercise, but also be left with pain in their inner groin area. Due to the location of the hip flexors, they can easily take over during abdominal exercises that are aimed to tone specifically the lower rectus abdominis. Repetition of incorrect posture over time can lead to injury so correcting this issue as soon as possible is imperative and can even be corrected with just a few simple verbal cues. The first step is to become more aware of your posture and form—pulling your lower abdominals in towards your spine so they fully engage and maintaining a flat back when the tailbone is hunched or tucked and not in a neutral position the hip flexors may kick in. In regards to posture, it is also of note to perform the exercises slow and controlled because not only will this keep your alignment intact, but you will also feel the exercise and engagement even more.
We are all guilty of looking in the mirrors and feeling disappointed or dissatisfied by the appearance of our midsection but I hope by learning more about the anatomy and incredible benefits of the abdominal muscles you can make peace with that region. Also know, that even if you are getting frustrated with lack of visible results, every time you engage in exercise that targets your core you are enhancing your quality of life! Practicing self-love, being healthy and spending your time and energy on doing what makes you happy is WAY more important than dedicating your life to a quest for six-pack abs!