Plastered all over magazine covers and shown off by those seemingly perfect ladies in the locker room, flat bellies are everywhere! With a growing “muscles are sexy” attitude, women of all shapes and sizes are working hard not only toward a whittled middle but a sculpted six pack. But is all that sweat equity paying off? Is there a better way?
A strong core will not only help improve balance and how well you perform day-to-day activities (think how many times you sit and stand in 24 hours). Your core also helps propel your legs left and right so you can return those balls on the tennis court. Your core muscles keep your spine stabilized while out for a morning run. And the core of your svelte figure engages as you rotate your hips and glide through the pool. As you can see, athletic performance is largely dependent on the muscles in your mid-section. So which muscles are we talking about, specifically?
Anatomy of your abdominals
The ab muscles make up most of what we call the “core.” They include muscles you can see and some you can’t:
External abdominal obliques: a pair of broad superficial muscles that spans the sides of your mid-section. Their fibers run diagonally (or obliquely) across the abdomen.
When in use: crunches, side bends and trunk rotations (a la Russian twists)
Internal abdominal obliques: located beneath the external abdominal obliques, these deep muscles span from the lower three ribs to your lower back.
When in use: crunches, side bends and trunk rotations
Transversus abdominus: this is the deepest layer of the abdominal muscles, wrapping from your ribs to pelvis. The muscle fibers run horizontally like a weight belt around your waist.
When in use: stabilizes your spine (like a weight belt), facilitates exhalation from the lungs
Rectus abdominus: the long, flat muscle that extends down the center of your abdomen and is separated by the linea alba (strong fibrous bands). With very little body fat on top of it, the rectus abdominus is what you see on the surface as washboard abs (Ta da! The six-pack has arrived.).
When in use: crunches and side bends; also stabilizes trunk when your center of gravity is compromised (usually when your head or arms move)
The remaining core muscles can be found in your back and even below the belt. These include:
Hip flexors: a group of muscles (psoas major, illiacus, rectus femoris, pectineus and sartorius), the hip flexors are located in front of your pelvis and upper thighs.
When in use: crunches with feet held down, scissor legs and any time your legs are drawn up and in toward your abdomen (you’ll notice this during mountain climbers, burpees and table-top crunches in the workout above)
Erector spinae: made up of three muscles surrounding the spine (longissimus, spinalis and iliocostalis) and runs vertically from your neck to lower back.
When in use: standing or any straightening of the spine, trunk rotations
Gluteus medius and minimus: they sit on the outside of the pelvis and beneath the gluteaus maximus.
When in use: leg kicks or any leg extension away from the midline of your body (think about this during your side plank with leg raises)
Gluteus maximus: the largest, strongest and outer-most muscle of your derriere, it largely influences the shape of your hips and is what keeps humans erect.
When in use: coming from seated to standing position, walking, running and essentially any time you bend your knee
Food for thought
My triathlon coach once told me, “You are not your abs.” What he meant was your body is so much more than one part. Clearly, many pieces make up your whole being – mind, body and soul. Instead of being fixated on chiseling your body like the statue of David, focus on your overall health and fitness. If you can’t balance on one leg while tying your shoes, why even care how flat your stomach is? Exercise regularly with a balance of cardio and weight training, give your muscles the care and attention you give your car (foam rollers work wonderfully) and choose foods that nourish your whole body (versus feeding your emotions). When exercise and diet are done right, a beautiful body – abs and all – will naturally unfold.