All the crunches in the world are not going to define your six-pack. Shocked?
If you didn’t already know, doing crunches is one of the culprits that causes lower back injuries.
Yet, many slog it out on the floor, hoping to crunch away the flab to create a ripped rectus abdominis, commonly referred to as the six-pack.
Lying on your back and repeatedly bending and extending the spine places excessive stress on the lower back, which houses a lot of nerves and is very susceptible to injury and fatigue.
Instead, focus on strengthening the transverse abdominis muscle, which is often overlooked by those seeking aesthetic beauty.
The transverse abdominis wraps around the abdomen horizontally, predominantly below navel level, and is connected to the back, ribs and pelvis.
It lies behind the rectus abdominis and is the ultimate stabilising muscle for your entire mid-section. It also controls the mobility of the lumbar spinal segments.
This muscle forms the deepest layer of the abdominal muscles with the obliques (internal and external) forming the middle layer, and rectus abdominis, the most superficial layer.
That loose pouch below the navel that refuses to go away despite hundreds of ab workouts?
That’s the transverse abdominis.
Women who have undergone childbirth, especially via Caesarean section, will know how difficult it is to melt this bit away.
And when both men and women hit middle age, the tendency is to accumulate fat in this area.
To feel how the muscle works, put your hand on your lower abdominals, and exhale while pushing it out.
The function of this muscle is to compress the abdomen and support the internal organs, so, whenever you employ deep breathing for sports or yoga, it is activated.
Throwing up, coughing, defecating, being in labour, and also, forced exhalation such as playing a wind instrument, singing a long note, blowing balloons or lifting heavy objects, all bring the transverse abdominis into play.
Working it out
Strengthening this muscle requires hard work and concentration.
First, you’ve got to activate it, and one of the best ways to do this is by performing isometric exercises, i.e. without any joint movement.
Pilates teachers often focus on this muscle before getting started.
Begin with this simple step:
• Lie comfortably on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor.
Put your hands below your navel, fingers pointing towards each other.
Apply more pressure onto your lower abdomen using your last two fingers.
• Keeping your pelvis steady, draw your lower abdomen towards the floor while your chest rises slightly.
• When your muscles begin to tighten, stop drawing in your stomach.
The muscles underneath your fingers should feel tight.
If you move too far, you will stop working your transverse abdominis and began recruiting the oblique muscles.
• Hold this position for 10 to 15 seconds while breathing normally, and do about 10-12 repetitions.
One set is enough because doing more can be counter- productive.
After some time, you’ll get the hang of it and this muscle will automatically activate.
Holding the plank, either on your forearm or on your palms, with proper alignment, is another way to strengthen this muscle.
Your back should be straight and your feet should be hip-width apart.
When this becomes a piece of cake, lift one leg 15cm to 25cm off the floor, and hold for 30 seconds.
As you get even stronger, attempt to do a push-up with one leg off the floor.
The scissor kick is another favourite among trainers, though it may put strain on the lower back if not performed correctly.
In this exercise, lie on the floor with the legs straight and hands under the buttocks.
Lift the head and one leg 25cm-30cm off the floor.
Hold for five seconds, then lower the leg slowly while lifting the other one, all the while keeping your head up.
The slower you perform it, the harder your muscles will have to work.
Basically, to recruit the transverse abdominis and protect your back, pull in your tummy whenever you bend over or slouch while sitting.
Your abdominal muscles will tone without the need for ordinary crunches.
Revathi Murugappan is a certified fitness trainer who tries to battle gravity and continues to dance, but longs for some bulk and flesh in the right places.