A Guide to the Anatomy of Your Abs and How to Train Them

Everybody wants a six pack and/or a flat stomach. This is one of the most desirable and sought after body features on the planet, but unfortunately many of us have very little idea of how to actually go about getting the muscle we want there.

Thing is that ‘abs’ actually refers to a whole bunch of different muscles. And no I’m not talking about the six bulges you can see on the front of your stomach – they’re actually all part of one muscle. You see? It’s more complicated than it sounds…

Understanding the anatomy of your mid-section and why it looks the way it does will allow you to target it much more precisely and to work out in a manner that’s much more efficient. So let’s take a look at what we really mean when we say ‘abs’…

The Rectus Abdominis

What most people are thinking of when they hear/say the word ‘abs’ is the ‘rectus abdominis’. That’s because this is the ‘slab’ of muscle that covers the front of your stomach and which has the six bulges making up the six pack.

The main role of the rectus abdominis is to pull the body forward. Thus it is used in sit up and crunch movements, but is also what prevents your back from doubling over backwards under the strain of your back muscles.

How do you get visible abs? You need two things:

  • Low (sub 10%) body fat
  • A strong rectus abdominis

If you have a low enough body fat percentage then you will see your abs as they will poke out through your skin just like your ribs can. The only way to get this low body fat percentage is to use lots of cardiovascular exercise in conjunction with a diet designed to help you lose fat.

That said, if your rectus abdominis is developed enough, then it will be better able to ‘push through’ the skin on top of it in order to make itself visible. So if you do enough sit ups, then you won’t need as low body fat to see your abs.

Then again, sit ups are not the best exercises to use when training the rectus abdominis and nor are crunches – these only engage a portion of the muscle. The bicycle crunch, the captain’s chair, the vertical leg crunch and the torso track are all much more effective exercises to use when targeting this area. The myotatic crunch is also a very effective exercise for this area and involves leaning backwards over a Bosu® ball or exercise ball.

The Transverse Abdominis

While the rectus abdominis is really the ‘star of the show’ when it comes to ab work, some of the others also play important roles. The transverse abdominis for instance can make all the difference when it comes to getting a flatter stomach and getting rid of any ‘pot belly’ look. That’s because the transverse abdominis is actually a ‘ring’ that surrounds the stomach and this way can be used to hold your stomach in. In fact this is so much the case that the muscle is often known as the ‘corset muscle’ because they can hold you in like a corset. The transverse abdominis also helps you to keep your spine straight.

Training these involves pulling your stomach in, and one exercise for this is the ‘cat vomit’ exercise demonstrated by Tim Ferriss. This involves resting on all fours and then pulling the abs in and up towards your back. Exercises performed on your forearms and toes will also force you to engage your transverse abdominis and to keep a straight line through your body. A number of exercises in Yoga and Pilates also target these muscles.

The Obliques

You have inner and outer obliques (obliques abdominis) to torque the body and help you bend left and right. They can help the corset effect by bringing your waist in at the sides and they also add detail either side of your abs for a really ripped look (they are diagonal and can be seen either side of the rectus abdominis). The internal obliques also happen to be responsible for your ‘love handles’.

The best way to train obliques is with any exercise that involves twisting the mid-section. This is another reason that bicycle crunches are so effective.

Also useful for training the lower obliques are exercises like side bends which involve bending sideways to lower and raise weights.

The Lower Back

The muscles in your lower back include the erector spinae and the quadratus lumborum. Their jobs are to extend your back upright (the erector spinae) and to bend the spine along with the obliques respectively. These are important muscles for stability and it’s important to train them alongside the abdominal wall muscles (above) in order to maintain your posture.

And actually your posture has everything to do with your abs. Stand up straight and you will find that your abs immediately look more impressive and become more functional.

Most of us spend a lot of our time slightly hunched forward which is partly a result of training programs that develop our pecs, abs and deltoids more than our traps, lats, erector spinae, quadratus lumborum and scapula retractors (used to pull the shoulders back).

Also responsible is a sedentary lifestyle – most of us spend a lot of our time sitting hunched over a computer which as you might imagine will only further contribute to a spine that’s curved in the wrong way.

Make sure then that you spend a good amount of time training your lower back with moves like the superman (lying flat on your front and raising your arms and legs up in the air) as well as training your upper back with exercises like rows. Maintain good posture throughout the day and that will help a lot too.

So there you go – that’s the anatomy of your abs and mid-section. The best way to get abs is certainly a bit more complicated than just ‘doing lots of sit ups/crunches’ and you really need to think about the muscles that you don’t see, as well as factors like your cardiovascular training, your diet and your posture.

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Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki is a full time writer who spends most of his time in the coffee shops of London. Adam has a BSc in psychology and is an amateur bodybuilder with a couple of competition wins to his name. His other interests are self improvement, general health, transhumanism and brain training. As well as writing for websites and magazines, he also runs his own sites and has published several books and apps on these topics.

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