I hear this a lot: "I have no abs." Well you'd look pretty funny without any abdominal muscles. But it may feel like you don't have any when challenging them with planks in yoga, the hundreds in a pilates class, or just holding them in when you squeeze into that sweet little dress of yours.
There are a lot of misconceptions, so let's take a look at what the abdominals are, what they do and how to get more toned ones.
The four major muscle groups of the abdominal area.
Transversus abdominus – This is your girdle muscle! Stabilizes your trunk and maintain internal abdominal pressure. The muscle fibers run around your torso. Tone these and you can often kiss low back and hip pain goodbye!
Rectus abdominus – these are your so called 6-pack muscles, which run from the ribs and the pubic bone. They flex the body forward. The fibers run up and down.
External oblique muscles – these are on each side of the rectus abdominus. Works to twist the torso, but in conjunction with the internal obliques. The external muscle fibers run in the same direction as your hands would if you were putting them in your pockets.
Internal oblique muscles – runs away from the rectus abdominus to just inside the hipbones. They operate in the opposite direction to the external oblique muscles. For example, twisting the trunk to the left requires the left side internal oblique and the right side external oblique to contract together.
Things to know. Things add to your routine.
Your abs are not divided into upper and lower abs, per se. If you want to feel more muscles working, best to engage your transversus and feel those girdle muscles fire. I suggest folks tighten their pelvic floor muscles (like a Kegel exercises) to feel the transversus engage. Now, make sure your feel those deeper muscles are engaged before you do any other exercise. Pilates exercises done with awareness to a neutral back position will hit more muscle fibers.
If crunches are your standard "ab exercise" du jour, take note! Target your obliques to give more definition to your waist line and slim lines. Some of my favorites are planks with a twist to a side plank, glider planks with cross overs, medicine ball side toss to the wall or to a partner.
While doing crunches, do you feel tightness in your neck? Forget that cue to lift your head, chin, nose, whatever to the ceiling. With a little support behind your head with your fingers, flex up and look towards your legs while imagining a grapefruit under your chin. Looking up to the ceiling takes your cervical spine into extension, shortening the back neck muscles, which are short on a lot us already.
I hate infomercials! Those ab blaster ads are quite appealing to anyone wanting to lose the gut. But what the viewer is missing is the small print saying that the models went on a diet too! Muscles are muscles and fat is fat. You can't spot reduce, tone the bulge into a six pack or whittle away the muffin top just by doing ab exercises. Sorry. You're gonna have to move it to lose it. The exercises will help tone the muscles underneath though. So calorie reduction + ab exercises + cardio exercise = weight loss and slimmer body.
Think about it. If you make a conscious effort to pull in your belly, all the time, you will get more bang for your buck on all levels; while working out, while sitting at your desk while doing your chores.
Work those opposing muscles too! Your "core" is more than just abs. There are lots of muscles on your back that will help with improving your posture, alignment and waist line. Breaststroke, spine stretch forward and swimmer are great pilates exercises for engaging front and back of the body simultaneously.
I hope that helps clarify things! And if you want to see some of the exercises I mentioned in action try a group training class or workshop.