By Brent Moore, CSCS
Core training has been one of the most commonly referred to ideas in the fitness industry in the past decade. It doesn’t matter what fitness methodology you subscribe to, chances are, your method claims to create and require great core strength. The problem with core training is that most people do not have any idea what they actually want to train when they talk about the core. When most people think core strength, they picture “six pack abs” and if they are slightly more educated, they will think about the six pack abs and the obliques, but this is not the whole story in core strength. The “core” is made up of more than just a couple muscles. The true muscles of the core include the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, internal obliques, external obliques, erector spinae, and the multifidus. In addition to these muscles, there are other additional muscles that assist these in stabilizing the core during movement. Core training is often focused on training the obliques and the rectus abdominis (the six pack muscles), but the other muscles of the core are just as important, if not more important in true core strength and stability.
The transverse abdominis, or TVA, is the deepest of the abdominal muscles and wraps around the spine for protection and stability. The TVA lies beneath the rectus abdominis and runs horizontally across the abdomen creating hoop tension in the core. Because of the way the TVA acts as a natural weight belt by resisting flexion of the lumbar spine during movement, the TVA can be responsible for preventing injury in repetitive movements, especially those that would otherwise transfer energy to the back and other joints. The TVA helps by transferring energy into other muscles instead of placing the load in skeletal system. For those with back pain, strengthening the transverse abdominis can help alleviate low back pain by providing additional support.
Knowing the transverse abdominis helps keep the back healthy should be enough to convince people to focus on it during core training, but some people, or possibly all people, are more motivated by knowing that it can keep the belly flat. Whereas rectus abdominis muscles develop outwardly, creating the six pack, the TVA develops inwardly and helps pull the abdomen in. This means that you won’t develop the pooch that so many people want to get rid of. Strengthening the TVA can also help reverse the pooch or gut that is developed with lack of proper training, however, if you want to have a flat six pack, you need to strengthen the TVA, the rectus abdomins, eat well, train hard, and reduce your body fat.
Whereas there are many exercises to strengthen the rectus abdominis, it can be more difficult to train the TVA because it is such a deep muscle. Exercises such as the plank help to train the TVA, but only when emphasis is placed on keeping the belly pulled inward. The most effective way to engage the transverse abdominis in the training setting is through use of the stomach vacuum exercise. The stomach vacuum can be completed in a supine, seated, or standing position. This exercise was a common pose for bodybuilders in the day of Frank Zane and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Think of the old pictures where they were flexed large in the chest and shoulders while appearing to have a tiny waistline.
The easiest way to learn the stomach vacuum is in the lying, or supine, position. Simply lie on your back and take a few breaths allowing your belly to go up as you breathe in and down as you breathe out. On one of the breaths out, pull your belly button in and visualize trying to make your belly button touch your spine. Hold this position for about ten seconds and then relax. Repeat this movement for six to ten repetitions. This exercise can be done in the gym, in the car in traffic, or lying in bed, so there is no excuse for not training the transverse abdominis. Take care of your core muscles and they will take care of you.
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