Achieving a flat stomach does not rely on endless sit ups and crunches. Far from it.
The secret to effective core training and gaining a flat stomach is to target and train the Transversus Abdominis (TA), a part of the body that is largely overlooked in gym-based workouts. Without specifically targeting this muscle, the abdominal wall will protrude (particularly in the lower half of the abdomen, which is often a problem area) – even when you may not have much fat there.
But with simple training of the TA (no, not sit ups), your stomach will appear flat, more toned and it will look like you’ve lost weight without even having lost an ounce of fat.
What is the Transversus Abdominis?
The TA is part of group of muscles that all play an important role functionally – with a big payoff being flat, toned abs. But to understand how to train it, we need to start from the outside and work inwards…
The Rectus Abdominis
This is the least functional, but most trained, of all the abdominal muscles as they are your traditional ‘six pack muscles’. They extend from the ribcage, below the chest, to the pubic bone and their role is to flex or bend the spine forward in a ‘sit up’ type action, and that’s about it. The rectus abdominus plays a very small role in core stabilisation, contrary to most people’s belief.
Internal and External Obliques
These muscles rotate the torso, so they are quite functional, helping for example to improve the tennis or golf game. They also play a small role in stabilising the spine and aid a small amount in overall core stabilisation and strength. These muscles appear either side of the six pack, and can often be seen going over the ribs and also around the hips. They will help – in conjunction with the TA – to draw in the waist, narrowing it and providing more of an hourglass appearance in women.
Transversus Abdominus (TA)
The Transversus Abdominus is the deepest, but most important layer of stomach muscle, yet it’s the least trained. The TA’s role is to flatten the abdominal wall and to stabilise the spine, as it’s the only stomach muscle to actually attach on to each of the lower vertebrae. For this reason, strengthening this muscle helps to reduce back pain and decrease the risk of injuring the lower back. It’s also the main core stabilising muscle, and it works closely with the pelvic floor (and guys .. .you have a pelvic floor too).
Conditioning the TA is imperative for flattening and toning the stomach, and giving the appearance of being slimmer
The Pelvic Floor
The pelvic floor works in closely with the TA to aid in core stability and strength.
The pelvic floor can often be weakened in females by events such as childbirth, and in extreme cases a female can suffer from a pelvic floor prolapse which may need surgery to repair. The most common symptom of pelvic floor weakness is stress incontinence, which is the passing of a small amount of urine when sneezing or coughing.
Most women know how to activate their pelvic floor but focusing on it is often neglected when it comes to exercise. Strengthening your pelvic floor can be life changing. By learning how to activate the pelvic floor (and importantly, remembering to engage your pelvic floor before and while lifting weights), can often be enough to strengthen it considerably.
How do I train my TA and pelvic floor?
To activate the transversus abdominis and pelvic floor, simply lie on your back with your feet on the floor and your knees bent. Place your fingers on the front of your hip bones. Next, simply roll the fingertips over these bones to the inside of the hips so your fingertips are just one centimetre inside the bone. Apply some downward pressure on your fingers, but you should be still touching the hip bones.
Now imagine you have a letter ‘T’ drawn on the surface of the stomach with the vertical line of the T starting at the pubic bone and going upwards towards the belly button. The horizontal axis of the T goes from one hip bone to the other. This is what we call the ‘T-Zone’ at Studio Pilates International to aid in imagery and communication.
Let’s focus first on the vertical axis of the ‘T’, which is the pelvic floor. Engage the pelvic floor by imagining you are stopping the flow of urine midstream, drawing the muscles deep in the vagina upwards and inwards (for males, imagine gently drawing the scrotum to the belly) whilst simultaneously constricting the muscles deep in the back passage (the rectum) as if you are preventing breaking wind. You should hopefully feel the pelvic floor tighten and some very slight tension in the muscles right on the inside of the hip bones.
Once this activation of the pelvic floor is mastered, then recruit the transversus abdominus as well. Imagine that horizontal line on the surface of the stomach that connects the hip bones together and focus on flattening that imaginary line and drawing it downwards towards the spine. You can also imagine the hip bones moving towards each other (without sucking in the stomach or lifting the rib cage upwards).
You may also like to think of drawing the navel to the spine, but the contraction is based below the navel, in between the hip bones. You should feel just a small amount of tension in the muscles just inside the hip bones under your fingertips. This is the pelvic floor and transversus abdominis working together and activating.
If you keep the pressure on the fingers and release the stomach muscles quickly you should feel the tension in the stomach under the fingertips release. Repeat the activation of these two muscles until you feel comfortable with it.
You are trying to keep all of the other stomach muscles relaxed at this stage as we are just focused on isolation and activation. Once you have mastered this, and strengthened these muscles by building your endurance, you can then progress to activating these muscles while doing increasingly challenging exercises and really making the most of your core training. Often, it’s a matter of taking one step backwards to take ten steps forwards.
It’s important to note that when you begin to curl the upper body up off the floor in a sit-up type motion, and you start to use some of the other stomach muscles such as the rectus abdominis and obliques, the stomach will want to bulge outwards. You should be always focused on flattening the imaginary line on the surface of the stomach towards the spine to prevent this from occurring. Only ever curl up as high as you can maintain a totally flat stomach, otherwise you will be defeating the purpose of your core training and you will be teaching your abs to stick outwards.
Now take it to the next level
Remember your new found T-Zone needs to carry over into everyday life and into your gym or fitness training; it’s not enough just to focus on it when training the abdominals. Consciously think of keeping it tight for a whole month to create a habit and make it natural. Keep it tight even when sitting down or standing, and your stomach will appear flatter, and your waist thinner, boosting your confidence and increasing your core strength at the same time.