In this post: Having strong abdominal muscles is key to your everyday happiness. Whether you realize it or not, your abdominals are the power behind every move you make.
Your abdominal muscles are essential to everything you do–literally. However you move, even if you’re bending your knee or doing something that seems completely unrelated to your abdominals, they’re working.
Every breath you take, every move you make, your abdominals are supporting you.
Or, at least, they should be. When your abdominal muscles don’t work how they should, bad things start to happen. It may not seem like much at first, but dysfunctional abdominal muscles lead to back and hip pain.
If you’re wondering what to do to strengthen your abdominal muscles, don’t worry. Here is everything you need to know to get stronger abdominal muscles.
A Quick Guide to Your Abdominal Muscles
Many people don’t know that we have four muscles which constitute “the abdominals.” From deepest to most superficial, they are the: transverse abdominis, internal oblique, external oblique, and rectus abdominis. Take a look at the image below to get a good idea of how the muscles are positioned in relation to each other.
The transverse abdominis, which is also known as the transversus, is the deepest abdominal muscle. It runs from the sides of your spine to the center of your belly. It joins at the line that vertically divides your six-pack abs called the linea alba.
The transversus also connects to the rib cage and pelvis. Essentially, the transversus is the muscle that holds all of your organs not protected by the rib cage or the pelvis in your body. I like to think of it as a sausage casing, holding all of the good stuff inside of us.
The transversus is only activated when you cough, sneeze, or intentionally blow air out of your mouth. I believe this is why Pilates breathing involves the exhale through pursed lips. If you can activate and tone the transversus, you can draw the internal organs more appropriately into the body cavity, helping you find relief from low back pain and helping you feel and look thinner.
Strengthen Your Transverse Abdominis
To strengthen a muscle, you want to do the movements that activate it. Since it’s not a good idea to start a coughing or sneezing exercise regime, breathing with a forced exhale is the best way to strengthen this muscle. Practice Pilates breathing or ujjayi breathing to strengthen the transverse abdominis.
Bring the heels of your hands to the mid-point on your bottom ribs. Now, slide your hands out to the outside of your hips. You have just traced the anterior (front) portion of your internal obliques. If you let your thumbs press into the muscles coming off the back part of your outside ribs, you are on the lateral (side) part of your internal obliques.
The anterior part of the internal obliques works individually to rotate the trunk the same direction as the working muscle. It also flexes the trunk to the same side as the working muscle. When both anterior internal oblique muscles work together, the muscles help to bring the chest and the pelvis toward each other. These muscles also help the transversus with forced exhalation.
The lateral part of the internal obliques works individually to rotate the trunk toward the working muscle. For example, the right lateral internal oblique will help rotate the trunk to the right. When both muscles work together, the rib cage is appropriately placed and stabilized above the pelvis.
Strengthening Your Internal Obliques
Since your internal obliques rotate your spine and help bring your chest and hips toward each other (both to the front and the side), there are many Pilates exercises and yoga poses that you can practice to strengthen the internal obliques. Here are just a few of my favorites:
Bring the heels of your hands to the outer edges of your rib cage. Slide your hands so that your fingers meet at your pubic bone. You have just traced your external obliques.
Now, stay with me here, let’s take a look at Lumbergh (because I love Office Space). Take a look at his suspenders. About an inch above the attachment of his suspenders to his pants is where the internal and external obliques cross.
Take a moment to imagine you have suspenders. (I’m guessing that you’re not wearing suspenders.) Place your fingertips in that spot about an inch down from your rib cage. Twist your body to the left. Can you feel the muscles work? Now, twist to the right to keep your body balanced.
The external obliques work individually to help you rotate to the side. For example, if you twist to the left, the right external oblique is working. They also work individually to help you bend to the side with no spinal rotation. If you were bending to the right side, the right external oblique would be working.
When both external obliques work together, they can flex the trunk forward like a crunch. Plus, they provide support for the lumbar spine (low back). They also help the transverse abdominis with forced exhalation.
Strengthening Your External Obliques
Even though the internal and external obliques sometimes work as opposites, they are balancing muscles that help our rib cage and pelvis stay neutral. For this reason, the exercises that you would do to strengthen the internal obliques will also strengthen the external obliques. Here are six more of my favorite oblique-strengthening exercises and poses:
- Side bend prep,
- Spinal rotation,
- Rotated chair pose,
- Gate pose, and
- Half lord of the fishes pose.
Are you familiar with pictures of six-pack abs? Those are the rectus abdominis. Rectus abdominis is the most superficial of the abdominal muscles. It runs from your pelvis up to your ribs in a straight band.
The rectus abdominis brings you forward (like a crunch) and also helps bend you to the side. Even though there are four abdominal muscles, the rectus is the one that will most likely try to step up and do the work. This causes disfunction. The goal is that each abdominal muscle do their own jobs. Sure, there are areas where they intersect, but if a muscle is supposed to do a certain movement, it should at least be participating.
For example, let’s look at the crunch. It’s a popular exercise, and I’ve mentioned it a couple of times in this article. When you do a crunch, it is tempting to just let the rectus abdominis do all the work. It is important to note that the rectus is not the only muscle engaged when doing a crunch. Both the internal and external obliques assist with this move, so it’s important to check in with those muscles to make sure that they are also working.
Strengthening the Rectus Abdominis
To strengthen the rectus abdominis, you need to move the ribs toward the hips (like in a crunch) and/or bend to the side. Here are my top six exercises to strengthen the rectus abdominis:
You’ll notice that crunches do not make my list. This is because I think it’s too easy to mess up the form and hurt your neck.
Building Strong Abdominal Muscles
Mindfulness while moving is essential. Whether you’re doing the exercises listed above or just moving through a regular day, constantly check in with the muscles that should be working.
Here’s a note: Your abdominal muscles should always be working to keep you upright. If you find that your spine is a little droopy or it feels like your ribs are melting toward your hips, take some time to find your abdominal muscles.
If you discover that your muscles that are supposed to be working are not, pause your movement, try to reconnect with the muscles you are seeking, and try again. This will become a very familiar process for you, especially if you are overcoming an injury.
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When you’re moving, are you checking for your abdominal muscles? Please let me know any comments or questions you might have below.