The Abs

The Abs

They are everywhere. I cannot buy groceries without seeing someone’s belly in the checkout line, taut and taunting. Moms obsess about flat abs, toned abs, stretch-mark free abs, non-jiggly abs. We smear cocoa butter on them during pregnancy, wrap them afterwards, and lament our fate if we are left with the pudgy, stretchy, or striated midsection of our own mothers.

The fitness world helps perpetuate this cultural ab obsession. Six pack abs — superficial abs — are the maniacal goal of personal trainers and gym rats. However, our infatuation with the core has not translated into more knowledge about our fetish. Most women know they want their abs tiny, toned, and tight, but beyond that, the muscles remain shrouded in mystery.

Demystifying Them

Throughout our bodies, we have deep and superficial musculature. Both are important. However, the core-centric fitness world has mixed emotions about the abdominal muscles. Traditionally, the rectus abdominis and obliques are the most worked because they are large and easily defined – as long as you have next to no fat sitting on top of them.

Meanwhile, self-proclaimed diastasis recti experts hail the deep musculature, such as the transversus abdominis, as the SOLUTION to your belly woes.

What in the world is the average mom supposed to think?

I’m still figuring it out.

Abs in a Row
Pictures of your outermost to innermost abdominals, respectively.

First, six pack abs aren’t an independent marker of health. Sometimes they are innocuous evidence of fitness, but sometimes they are a sign of low body fat and overworked superficial muscles.

Second, activating the transversus abdominis (TvA) in combination with the pelvic floor can help stabilize a wobbly middle, but the TvA isn’t a magic muscle. Too much emphasis on it pretends we can separate activation of each deep muscle from each superficial muscle.

Also, the abdomen is non-compressible. This means it can change shape, but not volume. Any time you overly squeeze your abdominal muscles, the displaced volume goes somewhere — some up, and some down to the pelvic floor. This is why you don’t want to habitually suck in your stomach, but it is also why you don’t want to do any core exercise intensely and repetitively ad infinitum.

A Closer Look at the Transverse Abdominis

Transverse AbdominisMany physical therapists and personal trainers tell women the TvA is nature’s corset. Cues for cinching this corset include the ubiquitous “belly to spine,” but also “breathe out while making a hissing or ha-ing sound.”

This needs to be clarified. The obliques and TvA form a hoop around the abdomen, with the abdominal fascia at the front of the hoop and the lumbosacral fascia at the back. Stiffening this hoop assists with spinal stability.[1]

Properly contracting the pelvic floor muscles co-activates muscles like the TvA and multifidi. You need to recognize the difference between a slight stiffening and an excessive squeeze of the abdominal muscles. Do not confuse abdominal contraction with exaggerated abdominal compression.

Therefore, the belly to spine imagery can be supplemented with better visuals. Pulling belly to spine too forcefully is not a great idea. The hissing or ha-ing as you breathe out is fine and likely helpful, as long as you don’t overdo the contraction.

You do not always want a “strongly activated” core. You want an “adequately tensed” core when you are doing any movement that requires stabilization. The more stabilization required, the stronger the contraction. In other words, your abdomen works with the rest of your body and adapts to the task at hand.[3]

Since the TvA helps stabilize the spine and pelvis, it IS important, especially for women who have trouble with their core stability, such as new moms, moms with diastasis recti, or moms who have become so obsessed with six pack abs that they have overworked their rectus abdominis without paying attention to the muscle patterns underneath.

However, this observation has been translated by too many fitness professionals into “the TvA is your savior.” We don’t have saintly muscles and villainous muscles.[4]

You should focus on activating your deeper musculature, but you also need to use your superficial musculature. And you need to have realistic expectations about how your abdominal muscles work.

They provide stability. They flex and extend and twist your spine. They influence how much pressure you exert outward, upward, downward, and sideways in your abdominal canister. Yet, the TvA will not squeeze a diastasis recti closed or single handedly flatten your core, neither will fixating on any other abdominal muscle. Fortunately, working all the muscles together may help narrow a gap. At the very least, your strength will improve.

Your abdominal muscles do matter – a lot. But they should be put into context.

Know them. Feel them. Tense them. Release them. Respect them. But stop obsessing over them.

Return to Week 4

  1. Stuart McGill, Low Back Disorders: Evidence-based Prevention and Rehabilitation. 2nd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007. 59.  ↩
  2. Physical Therapist Diane Lee notes that although all muscles are important for effectively transferring loads, the deep muscles-TvA, multifidus, pelvic floor, psoas, and deep hip rotators-are better suited for segmental translation control, while the superficial muscles compress multiple segments. Diane Lee and Linda Lee. The Pelvic Girdle: An Integration of Clinical Expertise and Research. 4th ed. Edinburgh: Elsevier/Churchill Livingstone, 2011. 77.  ↩
  3. Dr. Stuart McGill writes, “achieving stability is not just a matter of activating a few targeted muscles, be they the multifidus, transverse abdominis, or any other. Sufficient stability is a moving target that continually changes as a function of the three-dimensional torques needed to support postures.” Ibid., 121.  ↩
  4. Dr. Stuart McGill writes that “sufficient stability is achieved with modest amounts of co-contraction,” around 5–10 percent of max for the abdominal wall and its antagonists. Ibid., 151.  ↩

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