More than a Six Pack
The muscles that make up the core are more than a six-pack. When trainers, fitness influencers, and other people in the fitness sphere talk about having strong abs, many people think this means striving for a six-pack. In reality, many muscles contribute to having a strong core, and having a six-pack is not the main indicator of fitness. People of all ages and fitness levels can benefit from learning how to engage and strengthen their core muscles.
Four main muscles make up the abdomen
1. Rectus Abdominus- Commonly known as the “six-pack muscle”, this muscle flexes the spine forward
2. Right and Left Obliques- Individually they help the body twist. Together, they assist with spine flexion
3. Transversus Abdominus (TA)- Lies below the other abdominal muscles. It wraps around the body, protects the underlying organs, and provides stability
The TA is perhaps the most important core muscle due to the many functions it serves.
Transverse Abdominis Function
1. Stability– the TA holds everything together in the torso. This is important during physical activities such as lifting, carrying, twisting, pushing, and pulling because it reduces the risk of injury and provides the body with a strong, central pillar of support.
2. Protection- Organs that contribute to the vital functions of digestion, reproduction, and excretion lie under the TA.
3. Low back support- the TA can stabilize the lower segments in the spine and prevent excessive movements that might otherwise cause low back pain. Engaging the TA while changing positions, such as getting out of bed, can reduce the potential strain on the low back pain by providing additional stability to your spine.
To strengthen your abdominals, you first have to know how to properly engage the TA. Try this:
1. Lie on your back on a comfortable surface with your hands on your stomach, your knees bent and your feet resting on the floor.
2. Draw your belly button in towards your spine.
3. Gently tighten your core muscles. It sometimes helps to imagine someone is about to drop a heavy item on your stomach, and you have to brace yourself.
4. Your abdominal muscles should tense up under your hands, as if protecting your organs, but you should not be holding your breath nor pushing down into your pelvic floor.
Hold this contraction for 3 to 5 seconds, relax and repeat 5-10 times.
It may take some time and practice to master this skill, so do not become discouraged if your first few attempts at engaging your TA don’t work well. A physical therapist can also walk you through this process and give you additional tips.
After you know how to engage your TA, the next step is to strengthen your core. Here’s some exercise you can do to strengthen your core:
-Support yourself on your forearms and toes, facing the ground
-Engage your TA and keep your back flat like a table
-Hold this position for 15″, increase the length of time for a greater challenge
Isometric TA activation
-Lie on your back with your knees bent
-Engage your core, press both your hands into your thighs for 5 seconds, and keep your back flat against the floor
-Repeat ten times
Physical therapy can help you further progress these exercises to improve your core strength and stability, as well as help you functionally integrate these skills into your daily activities, job demands, and hobbies.