Abdominal, I don´t think there is a more popular muscle group than this one. Everyone is obsessed with it. But why this obsession? And are they really that important?
First, let me describe what the abdominal muscle group is. The abdominal muscle group is composed of:
- Rectus abdominis: this is a muscle that goes from your sinfisis pubis, pubic crest and pubic tubercle, to the xiphoid process and costal cartilages from the 5th to the 7th (1). So in other words, this is the famous ¨6 pack¨ or ¨8 pack¨ muscle we sometimes see people have at the beach. Important note: although the muscle seems like it is divided, it actually is not. Meaning it is just one muscle, and a upper rectus and a lower rectus does not exists. (2) Thus, training the rectus for nearly everyone can be accomplished with a single exercise. So all that raising the legs, lowering the legs, and other stuff we usually see when we go to the gym, is BS. If we want to train the rectus abdominis one exercise is sufficient to activate all portions of the muscle. So a simple curl up would work.
- Obliques:These are the muscles which some of us see to our sides. There is an internal oblique and an external oblique. The external oblique is more superficial than the internal oblique. The upper portion and lower portions of the obliques are activated separately, meaning, here it would be useful to have an exercise for the upper portion and another for the lower portion of the obliques (2).
- Transverse abdominis: This is the muscle that is under the rectus abdominis. So it is quite deep inside. You cannot see this muscle. This is a muscle that became very popular especially thanks to pilates, where they would teach you to ¨hollow¨ (drawing in the abdominal wall) to activate the muscle. Let me explain that you don´t need to hollow to activate the transverse, the transverse can be activated when you activate the other abdominal muscles. For example, imagine someone is going to punch you in your stomach, what do you usually do? You brace, which is a contraction of all the abdominal muscles. This bracing is much more effective for stability than hollowing, and this is the technique you should be using whenever you want to pick up something heavy (3,4). To demonstrate this, let us do an experiment. Sit on the edge of a chair and hollow (draw in the abdominal wall), and while maintaining that position try to get up. Then sit on the edge of a chair again, but this time brace (just a little), and try to get up. You see the difference?
Ok, now that we know a little about the ABDOMINAL, let´s try to clear up some of the myths that exist.
- First myth: ¨By having a strong abdominal you won´t get back pain ¨ or¨ you have back pain because of your weak abdominal or because of your weak core¨. That is the biggest BULLSHIT there is (and something I used to say, I´ll admit it) !! The only thing that consistently prevents low back problems is exercise (5-6). Doesn´t matter what you do, just move and the chances of having back pain will diminish. And when you have back pain, specialized exercises like targeting the ¨core¨ will do no better than for example going for a walk (7-8).
- Second myth: ¨Do abdominal exercises to lose the fat¨. If you are overweight, you want to burn as many calories as possible. Doing curl ups or other abdominal exercises doesn´t really burn up that many calories. And even if doing curl ups would burn a lot of calories, it probably wouldn´t burn the fat that you have around your belly. So if you are overweight you should be doing more important things than ¨curl ups¨.
- Third myth: ¨Do a lot of abdominal exercises and you will get the 6-8 pack¨. We all have the 6 or 8 pack, the problem is that there is a lot of fat that is preventing us from seeing it. Lose the fat and you will see the abdominal muscle. This doesn´t mean you should not be working out your abdominals, of course you should! But you should not be obsessed with them. The best way to get a 6-8 pack is eating properly and doing exercise. Most people who have a 6 pack is thanks to the fact that they have an incredible active lifestyle that makes them burn a lot of fat. They have that 6 pack because of their way of life, not because they exercise with that specific goal to have a 6 pack.
So in conclusion, the abdominal muscle is important and everyone should train it but you should not be obsessed with it. Everyone has a 6-8 pack, the problem is that it is hidden under our ¨fat¨. Burn that fat and you will see that 6 pack. There is no point in trying to train the upper and lower abdominal because, as I have stated before, there is no such thing. What you feel when you raise your legs is another muscle called the psoas iliacus. A simple curl up is good enough to activate the whole rectus abdominis. With all that said, there are still exercises that target and make the abdominal work in a much more effective way than the simple curl-up or sit-up, which by the way I wouldn´t recommend anyone doing. That is something I will talk about in my next blog, why you shouldn´t be doing sit-ups and what exercises are the most effective for the abdominal. Stay tuned and until next time.
1.Mcgill S. Low Back Disorders: Evidence Based Prevention and Rehabilitation. Human Kinetics. 2007.
2.Mcgill S. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, Fourth Edition. Backfitpro Inc. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada 2009.
3.Brow S, McGill SM. Transmission of muscularly generated force and stiffness between layers of the rat abdominal wall. Spine 2009, 34(2): E70-E75.
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6.Bigos SJ, Holland C, Webster JS, Battie M, Malmgren JA. High-quality controlled trials on preventing episodes of back problems: systematic literature review in working-age adults. Spine J 2009 Feb;9(2):147-68.
7.van Middelkoop M, Rubinstein SM, Verhagen AP, Ostelo RW, Koes BW, van Tulder MW. Exercise therapy for chronic nonspecific low-back pain. Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol.2010 Apr;24(2):193-204.
8.Mannion AF, Caporaso F, Pulkovski N, Sprott H. Spine stabilisation exercises in the treatment of chronic low back pain: a good clinical outcome is not associated with improved abdominal muscle function. Eur Spine J.2012 Jan 24.