Think your abs are just about core strength and stability? Think Again..
The one important function of the abs that you most likely don’t know about
Everyone loves to talk about the “core.” I am willing to bet you do a host of different core exercises designed to improve the strength and stability of your spine and hips.
However, there is an important function of your abdominal musculature that I bet you did not know about. This often forgotten about function is extremely vital to our existence and if not done properly will lead to compensator postural changes in the body, and not necessarily good ones.
What is this function? Breathing. You read that right, breathing. I bet you just raised your eyebrow in surprise on reading that. But let me explain why. The abdominal muscles (rectus abdominus – your 6 pack abs, internal and external obliques, and tranverse abs) all attach on the ribs and help move them.
This is important because the transverse abdominus (TA) and internal obliques (IO) are the main breathing assisters. The TA’s help pull the ribs down toward the hips and assist with exhalation. The IO’s help with forced exhalation and help increase the intra-abdominal pressure by pulling the ribs down and back toward the hips. When these muscles work together to assist the diaphragm with exhalation, then and only then can you achieve true core stabilization.
Most people breathe with their belly instead of using their diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that separates the chest and abdominal cavities. It’s main function is respiration: as the diaphragm contracts, air is drawn in to the lungs. However, when the diaphragm stays flattened, other muscle groups assist in breathing, even if they are not designed to do so. For example, the muscles in the pecs, shoulders, and neck will assist in elevating the ribs to help the lungs expand.
So how do we retrain the diaphragm to work effectively and help “shut down” the neck, shoulders, and pecs?
- Lie on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor
- Place your hands on bottom half of your ribs
- Breathe normal. Notice where your breathe goes. Does it go into your belly causing your stomach to protrude, or does your breathe cause your chest to rise?
More than likely you are a belly breather. People who are belly breathers tend to have compensation patterns to help them get a deep breathe. This also means that the diaphragm does not work very well.
Here is how to train your diaphragm and abs for breathing first:
- Lie on your back again with knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
- Place your hands on the bottom of your ribs.
- Inhale through the nose and then forcefully exhale through your mouth. You should feel your abdominal wall contract hard around your ribs, pushing your ribs down toward your hips.
- Guide your ribs down and in with your hands while you are exhaling. Continue exhaling fully, and then some, twice as long as the inhale. Hold that position for 3 seconds, then inhale through the nose for 3-4 seconds.
- Continue with the pattern of inhale and exhale. Exhale for at least twice as long as the inhale.
When you inhale, focus on filing your chest wall with air while keeping the abdominal contraction you created during the exhalation. Also keep in mind that you should not be using the muscles in the shoulders, chest or neck to inhale. This is a compensation pattern that should be avoided.
Perform 6-10 breathes, rest for a minute and repeat.
So, here is an important rule when working with the deeper abdominal muscles:
Train the abs for breathing first, core stability second.
External obliques on either side not only help rotate the trunk, but they perform a few other vital functions. These muscles help pull the chest, as a whole, downwards, which compresses the abdominal cavity. Although relatively minor in scope, the external oblique muscle also supports the rotation of the spine.
The internal abdominal oblique muscle is located closer to the skin than the transverse abdominal muscle. This muscle supports the abdominal wall, assists in forced respiration, aids in raising pressure in the abdominal area, and rotates and turns the trunk with help from other muscles.
Transverse abdominis helps with the breathing process by assisting in exhalation and compressing the internal organs. However, its main function is to activate the core musculature and stabilize the pelvis and low back prior to movement of the body.
Dave Radin is a Teacup Health & Wellness Coach and a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).