Rectus Abdominis: Learn Your Muscles

The rectus abdominis is your glamour abdominal muscle. As the most superficial of the abdominal muscles, it’s the reason you have a six-pack, eight-pack, or (as is the case with most Americans) two-pack. It’s easy to think that this is all the rectus abdominis does, to try to reduce it to simply being a showy muscle.

However, it’s not that easy. The rectus abdominis partners with several muscles in different ways to prevent lumbar (low back) pain. Its partnerships and constant effort to prevent back injury make it more valuable than many people realize.


rectus abdominis

Thanks to King of the Gym for the image.

The rectus abdominis originates on the pubic crest and symphysis pubis, which is the front of pubic bone. It inserts on the side of the xiphoid process, which is at the bottom of the sternum, and on the fifth, sixth, and seventh costal cartilages.

Center your flat hand over your belly button. Slide your hand up to your lower ribs and the bottom of your sternum. Now, slide your hand down to your pubic bone. Your rectus abdominis runs approximately from your ribs to your pubis. That whole way, it is about as wide as the distance from your fingertips to heel of your hand.


Rectus Abdominis Partnerships

To fully understand all the tasks of the rectus abdominis, you should be aware that the rectus abdominis is a team working muscle (if there is such a thing). Yes, all muscles work with other muscles to accomplish tasks, but the rectus abdominis is the Employee of the Month, if you will.

For example, the rectus abdominis works with the transverse abdominis, internal obliques, and external obliques to help keep your organs inside your body cavity. This, in turn, helps add support to the lumbar spine (low back). So, the rectus abdominis works with the other abdominal muscles to provide support (of the internal organs) and stability (of the spine).

This partnership is not particularly surprising since all of those muscles are located closely to each other and all span the distance from the ribs to the pelvis. However, you might be surprised that another crucial partnership exists between the rectus abdominis and your gluteus maximus and hamstrings.

If you think about it, rectus abdominis is the anterior muscle that helps counter the pull on the pelvis from the posterior gluteus maximus and hamstrings. This relationship is important to keep your pelvis from going into anterior tilt. A pelvis with anterior tilt creates lumbar lordosis, which is an increased curve to the lumbar spine.

Rectus Abdominis Solo Work

Even though the rectus abdominis is great at working with others, there are some activities that it performs without the help of other muscles. For example, like some of the other abdominials, it flexes and laterally flexes the torso. However, it does not necessarily need those other muscles to engage to perform those actions.

One unique action of the rectus abdominis is that it depresses the ribcage. This means that it helps control the angle of the bottom ribs. Sometimes the bottom ribs splay open to the front of the body, so the rectus abdominis fixes that.

If you think of the ribs as a portion of a container that is supposed to correctly align over the pelvis, this anterior splay is quite a structural flaw. With the ribs misaligned, it’s difficult to engage your abdominal muscles correctly in order for them to keep your organs inside your body cavity. The ability of the rectus abdominis to help correctly position the rib cage is essential to the success of the abdominal muscles as a whole.

Common Dysfunction

As already mentioned, a weak rectus abdominis can lead to lumbar (low back) pain. Because of the multiple duties of the rectus abdominis, there are actually several abdominal-related reasons why you could have low back pain.

  1. Your organs could be outside of your body cavity.
  2. The gluteus maximus and hamstrings could be tilting your pelvis, creating lumbar lordosis.
  3. Your rib cage could be misaligned and angled forward.

Oddly, even though you may notice one issue, the others may not necessarily be present. It’s all the same muscle, but weakness in one task doesn’t mean there is a weakness throughout.

Restoring or Maintaining Health

Pinpoint one action of the rectus abdominis where you perceive weakness, and pick exercises to specifically address that issue. For example, if your organs are outside of your body cavity, spend time on your back breathing. In this case, the same exercises that benefit the transverse abdominis will benefit the rectus abdominis. Traditional Pilates breathing and yoga’s ujjayi breathing will greatly improve your muscle tone.

If you feel like your gluteus maximus and hamstrings are providing more pull on your pelvis than your rectus abdominis, work on strengthening your rectus abdominis. Any exercise that involves spinal flexion will work your rectus abdominis, but the key is mindful movement. It doesn’t do you any good to do The Hundred or Roll ups to strengthen your rectus abdominis if you’re sloppy. As you move, make sure that the muscles are pulling toward your spine as opposed to pooching out away from your spine.

Perhaps you notice your rib cage is open to the front. To strengthen the muscles to realign your ribs, work on the Pilates exercise Rib cage placement. This is a fundamental of Pilates. Once you get your rib cage correctly positioned, challenge your strength by reaching your arms.

More Information

I consulted The Concise Book of Muscles by Chris Jarmey. Recently, the book was revised and is in its third edition.

Also, I consulted my Flash Anatomy Muscles Flash Cards. If you really enjoy anatomy and want a tool to help you locate specific muscles correctly, I highly recommend these flash cards. I turn to them any time a client comes in with pain.

By buying these items through these links, I earn a small commission.

What’s your favorite way to strengthen your rectus abdominis? Let us know in the comments below.

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About Sarah Stockett

Hi! I'm Sarah, and I'm a certified Pilates and yoga instructor with a passion for pain relief. When I'm not working with clients, I'm researching the best ways to get rid of pain. Do you want to learn how to practice yoga and Pilates safely in your own home? Or, do you want to know all my tips and tricks for pain relief? Join my mailing list and receive free goodies to help you.