NEW YORK — Summer is around the corner and the quest for bathing suit-worthy abdominals is on.
As seasonal athletes come out of hibernation and head to softball fields, tennis courts and golf courses, trainers touting functional fitness command their clients to "tighten your abs" and "engage your core".
Pilates instructors incessantly cue their students to "scoop the abdominals." But what exactly do those terms mean?
One of the most common misconceptions about abdominal training is that doing hundreds of crunches and using machines stacked with weight are safe, effective ways to get abs of steel. In reality those movements are often counter-productive and can lead to muscle imbalances and injuries.
Truly effective core-engagement goes much deeper.
Carrie McCulloch, a graduate of The Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and co-founder of Kinected, an integrative Pilates studio in Chelsea, sums it up this way: "The term 'the core' refers to the interconnected muscles of the lower back, abdomen and pelvis, which function synergistically to stabilize the spine."
"To visualize your core," she continues, "picture a powerhouse of muscles situated in your trunk, with your diaphragm as the roof, your pelvic floor as the floor, and muscles like the transverse abdominis wrapping around your back and sides as the walls."
These muscles are key to creating a healthy and stable spine, she explains, and everyone from marathoners to new moms needs spinal stability to help combat the destabilizing forces of everyday life, such as a sloped floor, a moving subway, or a jostle from a passerby.
A properly engaged core allows your trunk to maintain a static, protective posture. A strong core also helps you stand up straighter, move your limbs from a more energy-efficient center, and often simply feel better about yourself, according to McCulloch.
Machines and crunches target only the top-most layers of the core muscles, the rectus abdominus (RA) and the obliques. The real star of core anatomy is the transverse abdominis (TA), the third and deepest layer of abdominal muscle that stabilizes the spine and cinches the waist.
"Because these muscles are deep and not visible to the eye, many individuals do not think that they are important," says Matt McCulloch, director at Kinected.
"A large misconception is that the more defined your abdominals are, especially the six-pack rectus abdominis (RA) muscle everyone seeks, the stronger your core will be. This is, in fact, not true — it's actually the deep layers of the tranverse abdominis and the other deep-core stabilizers, that are more important in terms of core strength," he explains.
On a lean athlete the RA's two columns of three boxes are visible just under the skin, but a "six-pack" is merely a sign of a well-trained RA and the RA is a one-trick pony. Its only job — the only thing it can do — is to flex the spine, bringing your shoulders toward your hips or your hips toward your shoulders.
Yet the under-appreciated TA — your transverse abdomini — has three very important jobs.
The first of TA's three jobs is to literally contain your organs. The TA's second job is to support the spine. When functioning properly the TA acts like a corset or brace that pulls everything in and holds you upright. The TA's third job is to push things out of your body. Think of a toothpaste tube being squeezed in the middle, pushing the paste out the top or bottom of the tube.
The TA functions similarly in your body, squeezing you from the middle, whenever you cough, sneeze, laugh, defecate, vomit or, most importantly for our purposes, exhale forcefully. This is why proper use of the breath is necessary to effectively engage the deep core muscles.
Building coordination and endurance of the TA takes special care and attention because it requires muscle recruitment and sequencing that is not intuitive, especially if there has been an injury to the area. This kind of core-stabilization training is not physically demanding for most people but it does require mindful reprogramming of movement habits.
Since muscles closer to the surface of our body have more nerves or pain sensors than those lying deeper and closer to the skeleton, the sensation of contracting the TA is much more subtle than that familiar burn you get after dozens of RA-focused crunches.
This doesn't mean that contracting your TA is less challenging than contracting your RA. It does, however, require that when you are learning to engage your deep-core stabilizers you mindfully pay attention to sensations deep in the torso that you otherwise might not notice.
Concentrating on the precision of what we are physically doing, and incorporating breath into the movement, trains our brain as we train our muscles. Patience and focus on form and technique when performing these exercises is much more important than completing a certain number of repetitions. With well-executed core training, quality is infinitely more important than quantity.
I taught this exercise to a new client who came to me with a protruding waistline and chronic discomfort in her low back. The next time I saw her, two weeks later, she told me that adding only 10 transversus breaths a day to her daily routine had relieved her back problems and reduced her waist by two belt holes. Many others have told me they immediately feel a difference when they start to apply it to their daily activities. I notice the powerful effect of using a transversus breath as I throw the Frisbee to my husband in the park, for example. It inevitably goes farther and my aim is better when my core is stabilized as I release the disk.
Here's how to practice a TA breath:
Sit up straight with your back against a wall. Inhale deeply. Then exhale forcefully, as if blowing out birthday candles, and pull your navel in toward your spine and up toward your heart. This action is often referred to in Pilates classes as "scooping the abdominals."
Hold your navel there as you inhale again, and on the next exhale pull your navel in even further toward the wall behind you. On each inhale release the navel only slightly, maintaining a moderate contraction of the TA. On each exhale pull your navel in deeper, and imagine that you are pulling it through your spine to the wall behind you.
This is a deep TA contraction. Repeat with each breath, bringing the navel toward the wall with each exhale and releasing only slightly on the inhale. Maintain good upright posture throughout.
Be careful not to flex your spine (i.e. bend forward) as you pull your navel through your spine to the wall behind you. Keep your skull stacked directly over your tailbone throughout. Exhaling completely through your mouth is imperative as it allows you to gain a deeper contraction.
Another way to engage the TA is to pull your abdominal wall in and up as if you are zipping up the front seam of a tight pair of pants, then draw your front hip points away from each other, as if your are buckling them down, flattening your low belly toward your back. Maintain this position as you breathe, re-zipping and re-buckling with each exhale. Try combining this action with the pulling in of the navel described above for an even more effective deep-core contraction. Be sure to release the contraction fully after you have completed a set of three to 10 TA breaths.
Once you have mastered the TA breath, it's time to incorporate it into other exercises.
The Plank, ubiquitous in high-intensity training, is an integral part of the popular Burpee as well as the sun salutation found in many styles of yoga. Plank is a perfect example of an exercise where knowing how to do it right is key to success. Repeatedly doing it wrong can lead to injury while doing it right builds strength, coordination and endurance in multiple muscle groups.
Start on your hands and knees with your spine straight. Then perform a TA breath to lock in your spine and pelvis alignment. On an exhale, turn your toes under and lift your knees, extending your legs behind you. This is the top position in a push-up. Hold the position while you perform up to 10 TA Breaths. Resist the temptation to let your hips sag and your spine arch downward. When performed correctly, the Plank is an isometric co-contraction of the TA and the RA.
Side plank is an advanced move that challenges the lateral fibers of the TA. When done with good form it strengthens the muscles that lie under the unpopular "love handles". From Plank, shift your weight onto one hand and rotate your pelvis 90 degrees to face the side wall. Balance on the outer edge of your bottom foot and the inner edge of your top foot. As in plank, hold the position as you perform up to 10 TA breaths. Don't let your hips sag or your spine arch downward. Repeat on the other side.
These three exercises teach you to correctly use your core muscles to stabilize the spine and pelvis. But stability is only half of the deep-core equation. You also need mobility of the pelvis and spine in order to apply that strength and create powerful movements. Since useful strength is the sum of core stability plus core mobility, the second part of this two-part series will address core mobility.