The Abdominals

A strong trunk represents a fit, confidant, and sexy looking body and has many important functions that most of us are unaware of. If there is one muscle group that everyone wants to improve the looks, it surely must be the abdominals.

Anatomically the abdominals attach on the front, sides, bottom, and back of the trunk, from the sternum down to the base of the pelvis. These muscles flex, extend, laterally bend, and rotate the trunk. They are also involved with moving the pelvis, thigh, spine, head, and neck. Abdominals have a fascial link to the diaphragm helping us improve our deeper abdominal breathing allowing more air to flow into the lower lobes of our lungs.

The abdominals are also essential for our digestive system in helping to compress our large intestines to increase peristalsis, one of the weakest muscular movements in our bodies.

I agree totally that abs can make you look fit but they also make us move and function much more efficiently.

All movement is wired through the neuromuscular system from our brain stems. Even before we start to run or walk our abdominals are getting ready for action. They are involved with stabilising our spine and lower back to keep the body from bending out of shape and getting injured

Over development of the rectus abdominus (6-8pack) and under development of the lower fibres of the abdominals is a common cause of poor over-flexed posture and gait irregularities. These muscle imbalances can and do cause back, neck, pelvis, shoulder, and other injuries.

As movement therapists/physical therapists it is our job to locate and assess these muscles through observation (watching a person walk or run), or a quick interview, what movement is most and least painful, plus simple muscle strength testing.
The abdominal muscles include the rectus, transverse, and external oblique and internal oblique. The main controlling nerves that move and stabilise them exit through a large number of spinal vertebrae from the 5th to the 12th thoracic area. This is an area that is usually very restricted in its rotational range of movement and when freed up will improve the neural response into the abdominal region.

During natural activity, a single muscle does not usually work in isolation but in harmony with others. It is a program of movements that is learned and memorised by repetitive, adaptive movements that allow all these units to fire and work in a synchronised pattern. Physical activity involves an infinite number of variations all regulated by the brain. In return, the brain receives significant stimulation from each muscle cell, or fibre.

When swinging a golf club or tennis racket the trunk is moving through several planes of motions and the abdominal fibres are working at stability, strength and speed variability’s. Abdominals can be trained for better function and more range than when doing simple uni- planar movements like the sit up.
Virtually all actions involve the abdominal muscles to some degree from biking, running, walking, swimming, and jumping. Even sitting and lying down they are mildly active, helping to keep the trunk stable and balanced.

Despite the pictures you see of fashion icons, the abdominals don’t bulk up nearly as much as other muscles because they are relatively thin structures. Those with so-called six-pack abs look that way to a large degree because of low belly fat, allowing us to see their muscle detail very well. But reducing this fat won’t happen by performing sit-ups, spot reducing does not work. Burning off body fat is best accomplished by improving the metabolism. Diet plays a huge role too.

I always say, everyone as a washboard stomach, under his or her layers. Look at our kids who run around all day, they have defined abs even at the age of 7. They move so much naturally that they don’t have time to build body fat. At least that should be the case!

If you look at the way children bend, extend, and twist in all planes we too should try to add multi planar movements; left and right rotation and side bending, flexion, extension, and combinations. This will help develop the full range of our abdominal muscles

To isolate the abdominals more safely and increase your power base, lye on your back with knees bent to 90 degrees, and perform short arc sit ups to around 30 to 45 degrees only, then slowly back down. Repeat 10 times.

Here at Motion Dynamics where we specialise in flexibility training to iron out the tension in your body we also teach clients to stabilise their joints and especially the trunk. We recommend reverse crunches, where the ankles are crossed and the pelvis is lifted off the floor as you draw the knees to your chest. This movement encourages even lower muscle contraction. Adding rotation, lateral bending, and oblique movements can help even more. But don’t perform these abdominal exercises to the point of any significant fatigue—soreness should not exist the next day. At Motion Dynamics we will usually perform a maximum of 3 sets of 10 repetitions or until the client reaches a point of fatigue.

The other exercise we like to prescribe to our clients is easy to perform and can be done anywhere including the time when you sit which is the time that your so called sitting muscles are at their weakest and most inactive. We call this exercise “The Vacuum”.

Deep abdominal contraction will occur when your belly button is strongly pulled inward, as if it is trying to touch the spine. You will hold this position whilst exhaling in an isometrically contracted hold for 7 seconds at a time. Repeat this 4 or 5 times and perform it whenever you can.

Everyone can benefit from performing “The Vacuum” routine regularly to help retrain unused abdominal fibres. It will protect your back when getting up and down from lying and sitting positions. Also it will help stabilise the back when sitting to counter the physical stress of this compressed position. It will also protect the spine when bending to maintain stability.

Abdominal strength is essential prior to lifting objects for added support and strength. With stronger abdominals you can maintain a more erect posture whilst standing.

Most important for general function, you will improve your style of walking and increase stride length and reduce unnecessary stress on your lower back.

Finding the right coach who is well trained in Postural correction exercises and can link the weakness of your abdominals to the dysfunctional pelvic alignment is very important. 96% of all lower back pain stems from mechanical and biomechanical dysfunction according to the British Medical Association in their research on causes of back pain.