Hello friends and welcome to our final segment on our series on abdominals where we talk today about the rectus abdominus. What is the rectus abdominus? Why it's what we like to call the 6-pack. Never before has a muscle struck such terror, horror, and joy into the hearts of people. This area is by far the most requested muscle group I get from clients who are wanting to search, find, and conquer their midsection!
However that being said, the rectus abdominus is also one of the most misunderstood muscles of all time. We talked before about how engaging the abs correctly will create the long, lean, sculpted muscles we all so desire, and by cracky, the opposite is also true. Engaging the 6-pack incorrectly will create a pouchie ab muscle. Not pretty. So how do we attain such slimming, toning success? Let's take a look at what the rectus abdmoninus is and how we can find and conquer!
What is it?
The rectus abdominus is a paired muscle that runs vertically along the front and center of the torso. They are connected in the center by connective tissue called the linea alba and the entire muscle is enclosed inside a "rectus sheath" (think of it like a sack made of fascia) formed by the aponeuroses (flat tendon) of the three preceding ab muscles (transverse, internal, external oblique). The rectus adheres to the front of the sheath at three intersections by thin tendons, which are visible as transverse grooves or muscles bodies which create that lovely 6-pack when the muscle contracts.
Where is it?
The rectus abdominus is the most superficial of all abdmonial muscles. That means it is on the outside, closest to the skin. Remember the deepest layer is the transverse abs, then the internal oblique, external oblique next, and finally the rectus abdominus.
Below, the rectus is connected to the pubic crest and pubic symphosis. Basically, the pelvic bone is made up of two bones (right and left side) and where they attach in the front at the pubic bone is where that 6-pack connects.
Above, the rectus is attached to the xiphoid process (think the cartiledge part right by the sternum that often breaks when you do CPR on someone) and the costal cartilages of ribs 5-7.
Why is it important?
The rectus muscle is responsible for flexing the spine or trunk (moving the sternum towards the pelvis). It's considered the most powerful flexor of the spine. It also flexes the trunk by tilting the pelvis backward (like a pelvic tilt) or helps out with lateral spinal flexion.
How do I engage my rectus abdominus?
When engaging the 6-pack it is SO important to first activate the transverse. So that means find your corset muscle. Close those ribs like you're wearing a corset, chest slightly presses down towards your hips, and your abs (and belly button) activate and press down towards your spine. Once you feel secure in this place you can then move into an exercise or movement that will activate the rectus abdominus. Movements that will start sculpting that 6-pack are exercises where you are laying on your back and you lift your head and chest towards the ceiling (make sure to tuck your chin into your chest so you're not relying on your neck muscles to hold you up!), anytime you're laying on your back and lift both of your legs into the air, or pikes. Anytime the spine flexes, there's a good chance that 6-pack is firing!
Now there are some MAJOR things that MOST people do when trying to do these exercises which do not help the bod or the bod you're trying to get. And we're talking almost every time I work initially with clients, they do not engage this muscle properly. Watch out for these common warning signs:
Dangers to watch for:
For all that is holy, DO NOT let the stomach pooch when you begin your exercise. This is very obvious to tell if you are doing or not. A simple test: put your hand on your stomach by your belly button while you're laying on your back. Lift one leg into table top (leg bent into the air), and then lift the other leg into table top. If you felt your stomach punch out at all that was the rectus and what we DO NOT want. Try it again. This time think of that corset and pressing those abs down toward the spine even harder before you lift your second leg. As you perfect this engagement, the stomach should not pooch or punch out at all. Now you are on your way to abdominal bliss.
I will mention it is easy to see as well. If you lift your head for a crunch and your stomach punches out to look like a loaf of bread, no bueno. However if your stomach continues to look smooth and engaged, almost like the scoop of a bowl, most excellent. Let's take a looksie at what this looks like.
A word of encouragement: this is not easy!! It takes a lot of practice. Like I mentioned before, most of my clients cannot do this for their first few sessions and in all honesty, it is not something that is taught to the general public! We are taught to do as many crunches as humanly possible, without much knowledge or awareness of how to do them, in order to get the abs we're looking for. But by the end of our set, we are doing more harm than benefit by creating a stomach that is poochie no matter how much weight we lose.
Okay so we know how to properly engage them, what not to do, now what exercises can we do?
Rectus Abdominus Exercises:
Bicycles/Criss Cross Abdominal Series
- This is one of the most beneficial ab exercises you can lay your hands on.
- Lay down on your back with your hands behind your head with your elbows open to the side. Breath in. As you exhale, engage those corset, transverse ab muscles and lift both legs one at a time into table top and lift your head by nodding your chin into your chest. Extend right leg out to a high diagonal and cross right elbow towards the opposite left knee. Repeat to the other side, that's one.
- Take these slow and do not let your stomach pooch! You're looking at your stomach so make sure it's scooping in rather than pooching out. Keep those elbows and that chest open and almost feel like you're pressing your lower back into the floor a touch.
- Start with 3 sets of 5 reps of slow bicycles (yes, that means 5 on each side). Work up to 4 sets of 12 reps (96 total).
- Another fave. Kneeling on your hands and knees, clasp your hands and place your forearms down onto the floor at a "V". Engage your transverse and as you exhale extend one leg behind you with your toe tucked and then extend your other leg and hold yourself up, trying to create a straight line from your heels to your shoulders. Suck that belly button up and into your spine!!
- Lots of fun stuff to do here. First off build up to a 1 minute hold and then my friends, on to a 2 minute hold. Rest in child's pose. Next on to plank where your body stays the same but you rock yourself back and forth, forward and back, pushing with your feet. Last one is a personal favorite, the pike. This bad boy only comes when you feel 110% with the last two and you're able to hold that 2 minute plank. Find a slippery surface, put your feet on a slippery towel and up you go into plank. Keeping your legs straight, lift your hips up to the ceiling so your feet come towards your elbows, then lower back into plank. Hee-ya!
- Plank hold: work up to 1 minute, then on to 2 minutes. Plank rock: 10 rocks at a time. Plank Pike: 10 reps at a time. I recommend doing a plank series of one hold, 1 set of plank rocks, and 1 solid set of pikes.
- As this becomes easy, you can build on this, but don't get lazy! Don't let the hips sag (which will kill your back) or let those abs pooch (which they will absolutely do until you consciously switch to the feeling of pressing abs to spine).
Double Leg Lower
- Laying on your back, tuck hands, palms down, just below the glutes. Press those abs down towards the spine and for this one press your lower back into the floor. On your next exhale, lift your legs one at a time to the ceiling. Breath in. On the next exhale, lower those legs together (no space between the legs) to a high diagonal. Then inhale and take them back up to the ceiling.
- This one is soo easy to arch your lower back (which again will destroy your back and cause back pain for days to come) and to pooch the abs. Press that lower back down and abs to spine like crazy, people!
- Start with 10 reps. As this becomes easy, lower those legs down 2 inches, however the lower back should NEVER lift. A mirror or friend is mandatory while you are learning for these suckers. Build to 3 sets of 10.
Wrong arching back:
WARNING: If you are pregnant or are 6-9 months postnatal DO NOT DO THE ABOVE EXERCISES. Engaging the rectus during these times will almost guarantee you a diastasis (when your 6-pack rips apart and splits open at the seam of the linea alba). This is serious. If the diastasis is too big, you can only repair it through surgery. Do not do it. However you can revisit my article on transverse abs and do one million of those suckers (they can actually close and prevent a diastatis). And for all you other friends out there, you're not immune. Men often get this too from muscling through their ab workout and pooching their bellies. Don't do it! More on diastasis to come...
And there you have it. The abdominals. This is indeed how you engage, build, and define these muscles. However if you're looking for that chiseled look, know that diet and cardio are also key components for shedding any extra cushion around the midcenter. Building muscle weight will absolutely help speed up your metabolism because muscle burns more calories than fat, but what you put in your mouth and how active you are, are very real players. Take it slow friends. Don't conquer the world in a day. Set up a plan that is doable and sustainable. And maybe it is adding three of these exercises to your daily routine and drinking more water. After a couple weeks of that, perhaps you add another exercise and begin eating more fiber filled veggies. And then the next week you add 10 minutes of cardio. Sustainability is the name of the game.
Well my friends! Go out and conquer. Summer 2015 has your name written all over it, and this is your year to let all your ab fantasies come true! You now have all the tools and knowledge to make this a reality. Consistency is key. What if this year you made a sustainable game plan, got a friend on board for accountability, and within months had the abdominals you've always hoped for? Game on. You go get your dream.