Engaging the Abs

Photo by Noah Kavic

Have you ever done sit-ups and ended up with a sore neck instead of sore abs? Truth is, there is more to engaging your abs than just moving your body up and down in the sit-up position.

Our body is made up of two systems:  the stabilization system and the movement system. While the movement system is comprised of the superficial muscles that we see in the mirror, the stabilization system is responsible for the strength within the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex that allows us to maintain our overall balance. And, just like building a house from the foundation up, we too must build up our core from the inside out. That means we need to learn how to engage the transverse abdominus (TA) muscle that runs horizontally, wrapping around the front and sides of your body like an internal girdle. When you contract this muscle, it initiates movement in the rectus abdominus, internal, and external obliques.

Finding the Transverse Abdominus

Since all of the muscles of the core contract together, if you can properly engage the Transverse Abdominus, you are on the right path to a flatter, stronger belly. Start by putting your hands on the bony parts of your hips then walk your fingers two inches towards your belly button and 1-2 inches down. You are now directly over the TA. This is where you should feel a gentle contraction every time you engage your core.

Ways to Engage #1

Lie down on your back with your legs bent and feet on the floor shoulder-width apart. Next try to get your belly button down to the ground. Put your fingers right over the TA and try it again. If you notice a bulging when you contract, you may be overdoing it. Release the contraction until you are at about 30% effort. You should still be able to breathe normally.

Ways to Engage #2

If you happen to be a more visual person, you can put an object on top of  your low belly while practicing the above method. This can be a small ball or light cup. If you are working correctly, each time you draw in your navel to your spine you should see the object move down along with your belly.

Ways to Engage #3

Lie face down on the floor, with your legs extended. Your hands can lay on top of each other right under your forehead so you can face down. Make sure your hips are making contact with the floor. In this position, practice lifting your belly button off the floor. This will be a gentle movement so make sure not to move or tighten any other part of your body. You simply want to be able to create a little space between your belly button and the floor. Hold each contraction for a few seconds to get the feeling of engaging the TA.

Drawing in your belly is different from flexing your abs. If someone were to punch you in the stomach, your natural reaction is to flex. What you want to practice here is actually pulling in your belly button towards your spine which creates a shrinking of the waist. And it is this feeling of engaging your transverse abdominus that you want to feel each time you perform any exercise that uses your core.

*Once you have practiced the above methods and feel ready to get your core strong, click on this link for a variety of ab exercises.

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