Do the Deep Abdominal Muscles Need Strengthening?

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The idea that certain stabilizing muscles can be trained to automatically contract at the time of effort to protect the joints has long been a tenet of the exercise sciences and practices and is passed on by personal trainers, Pilates instructors and many others working with people and exercise. In particular, the deep abdominal muscles are at the center of this instruction.

The Deep Abdominal Muscles

The deep abdominal muscles are called the transversus abdominis, or TvA for short. They lie beneath the surface abdominals you know as the six-pack or the rectus abdominis—the ones you train to get a nice washboard stomach.

The TvA has been targeted as a muscle group that influences the stability of the spine, and so has been promoted as important for back protection; and, the advice goes, that if you develop this muscle and train it to work subliminally for you, the spine will be protected from injury as you exercise.

"Hollow out" or "draw in" the stomach by sucking in the transversus abdominis, and this will set your torso up as a powerful unit able to withstand the rigor of weight lifting and other sports. Pilates in particular has a lot to say about the use of the TvA.

Origins of the Advice

It seems that the origin of this information is a physiotherapy rehabilitation group at the University of Queensland, Australia (Richardson 1996). However, the advice seems to have been taken well beyond the original context, which was for the rehabilitation of back injury and pain.

What You Need to Know

I must admit that I have never practiced or preached "drawing in," as it just did not seem useful or even practical to me. On the other hand, "bracing" the stomach muscles ready for effort does seem intuitive. You only have to do a pull up or chin up on a bar to feel how these muscles automatically brace themselves for effort.

What bracing is: Most trainers agree that this procedure of bracing as if preparing for a feigned punch in the stomach, and not hollowing or drawing in, is a fundamental tool of the exercise trainer and a basic procedure from which every person involved in exercise or physical activity of any sort can benefit.

Strengthening this core of muscle—at back and front of the torso—is paramount to performance and injury prevention.

Let's not get confused here: It's important to understand the distinction between bracing and drawing in or hollowing. Bracing is what we want you to do.

What bracing is not: Bracing is not holding the breath, pushing the stomach out or trying to push your belly button through your tailbone (coccyx).

Get used to the bracing idea and you can do it almost anywhere, even running. Many endurance runners have poor core strength and abdominal posture because under fatigue they get very slack in the stomach area. Another group that can benefit from braced abdominals are office workers and people sitting at work or home most of the day.

One of the basic exercises for strengthening the abdominal muscles is the crunch. See my Top Exercises for New Weight Trainers for a run through of the basic crunch and other exercises.

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