What You Need to Know to Build a Strong Rectus Abdominis Muscle and Powerful Core

The rectus abdominis muscle is best known as the 6-pack abs muscle, but it’s not just lovely to look at. This muscle is one of your body’s hardest workers and a real team player.

a pin with a drawing of the rectus abdominis muscle

Anyone trying to be healthier or get rid of back pain has undoubtedly heard this advice: strengthen your core.

Okay. Thanks, but what does that even mean?

Simply put, your core is a group of muscles that work together to keep your rib cage, spine, hips, and legs in a neutral position. When all the muscles in your core work together evenly, your muscles move effortlessly and your body is pain-free.

However, if one or more of your core muscles are dysfunctional, you will have issues and possibly pain. Here’s what you need to know to strengthen one of your main core muscles–the rectus abdominis.

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Where Are the Rectus Abdominis Muscles?

a drawing of the rectus abdominis muscle
Thanks to Kenhub 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.

So, flatten your hand and center it over your belly button. Slide it straight up to your lower ribs and the bottom of your sternum.

Now, slide your hand down to your pubic bone. You have just felt your whole rectus abdominis muscle.

This crucial abdominal muscle 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.

So What Are the Core Muscles?

We already know that the rectus abdominis is one of our core muscles. In fact, all four abdominal muscles are part of the core. (The other three abdominal muscles are the transverse abdominis, internal obliques, and external obliques.)

In addition to the abdominals, the other core muscles are the:

When these muscles are balanced, strong, and work together; they make movement feel effortless and keep your body pain-free.

What Does The Rectus Abdominis Do?

Working with Friends

If there is such a thing as a team working muscle, the rectus abdominis is it. Sure, all muscles work with other muscles to accomplish tasks, but the rectus abdominis is sort of like the Employee of the Month.

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 close to each other and all span the distance from the ribs to the pelvis. But, the rectus abdominis is partners with two other muscles that might surprise you–the 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 and creating lumbar lordosis, which is an increased curve to the lumbar spine.

Working Alone

Even though the rectus abdominis muscle is great at working with others, there are some activities it performs by itself. For example, like some of the other abdominials, it helps you bend forward and straight to the side.

However, it does not necessarily need those other muscles to engage to perform those actions. It can move the body on its own.

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, and 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. It’s also crucial for low back pain relief.

But What If It Doesn’t Work…

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.

I highly recommend you consult your doctor if you have back pain. Your doctor can order the appropriate imaging, therapy, and medication to correctly treat your issue.

That being said, sometimes you might notice small, correctable issues like the issues mentioned above. You can probably do exercises to correct the muscular imbalance causing these issues. Again, though, let me remind you that if you feel pain, you need to call your doctor.

How to Keep Your Rectus Abdominis Healthy

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, 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.

Other Great Rectus Abdominis Strengthening Exercises

Honestly, there are a ton of great exercises that strengthen the rectus abdominis. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. Ab prep
  2. The Hundred,
  3. Roll ups,
  4. Side bend prep,
  5. Roll over, and
  6. Reverse warrior.

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.

To Learn More…

The Concise Book of Muscles by Chris Jarmey is a really great, easy-to-understand book about the major muscles in your body. However, for more precise medical information, I recommend checking out Flash Anatomy Muscles Flash Cards. (I earn a small commission if you order through these links.)

Also, Kenhub.com is a great resource to learn anatomy. Here is the link to their information about the anterior abdominal muscles (such as the rectus abdominis muscle).

You don’t need to wonder how to relieve your pain. Just click here to receive your free copy of The Secret to Immediate + Lasting Pain Relief.

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

About Sarah Stockett

Hi, I'm Sarah! I'm a certified Pilates and yoga instructor with a passion for pain relief. I believe you can use simple exercises to relieve your aches + pains. AND, I believe I can teach you how.