The first thing to understand is that we all have a ‘6 pack.’ Yes, your ‘6 Pack’ or Rectus Abdominus, is there, but is probably ‘disguised’ under a layer of adipose tissue (sometimes called the ‘energy stores’ your conserving for that really long run)!
The other thing to note is how I call it ‘a’ 6 Pack – by this I mean it is one muscle, not a group of 6 muscles. (And actually, it could be an ‘8 Pack’ or even a ’10 Pack’ depending on your individual anatomy).
So, what does it actually do?
It’s basic, fundamental function is to flex your spine – that is, bring your upper body towards your lower body or vice versa.
Think of the space between your anterior ribs & pelvis – if you close the space (say by doing a “Crunch” type exercise) you will be using, primarily, your Rectus Abdominus. Conversely, if you were to lie supine & bring your knees all the way up towards your chest, you’re also using the same muscle (so long as that space closes up).
This is because the attachments of the muscle extend from your Sternum at your chest & the ribs in this area all the way down to your Pubic Bone.
The lines of separation we see across the abs of very lean people are fibrous intersections & the long one that runs top to bottom is the Linea Alba. But it is still a single muscle.
Taken in isolation, as in the image above, it looks as though its only function is to flex the spine. However, it is also intimately connected to the other abdominal muscles around it – most notably the Obliques that we tend to think of as being the abdominal muscles on our sides.
The Obliques (Internal is deep, External more superficial) actually connect across the front of the Rectus Abdominus to the Linea Alba – that long line down the middle of the ‘6 Pack.’
But that’s not all, they also connect behind the Rectus Abdominus, so that the Rectus is effectively enveloped within the Obliques (or at least their connective tissue fascia).
This means that any time we create tension in our abdominals, say when you’re performing your ‘Core Exercises’ with the goal of ‘Spinal Stability’ we are actually using our Rectus Abs too. That might seem controversial to some ‘core stability Instructors’ but that’s simply what the anatomy & physiology is telling us.
So, this Rectus Abdominus ‘6 Pack’ can flex our spines, it can move our pelvis into a posterior tilt by pulling upwards on the pubic bone, it can work with the Obliques during exhalation as well as creating stability of the torso (between ribs & pelvis).
One of the questions at the beginning of this piece was, ‘Do I need one for running?’ Well, hopefully the short summary above will tell you, “Yes!”
I suspect there are some runners with coaches who have been told they run in too much ‘anterior pelvic tilt,’ or ‘excessive lumbar extension.’ Training your Rectus Abs correctly is a part of the solution to this type of posture.
How do I train it?
You simply perform the exercises that the anatomy & physiology tells us – that is, spinal flexion. It doesn’t even really matter too much whether you fix your pelvis & bring your ribs towards the pelvis (like a “Crunch”) or you fix your ribs & bring your pelvis towards the ribs (say, a “Reverse Crunch”) – the idea of ‘Upper’ & ‘Lower’ abs is also a bit of a myth – it’s one muscle with only fibrous bands creating the illusion of a group of different muscles! The upper & lower portions do not have distinct, separate nerve supplies telling each section to do something in isolation of each other.
I’ve written about the concept of ‘funtional training’ before –suffice to say here, your functional training exercises must be ‘functional’ to your personal needs.
Personally, in my Rehab Programmes, I will always mix things up. I’ll train someone’s muscles in isolation (as much as that’s kind of possible) so they have some fundamental strength & conditioning in the muscles & they know where they are & what they do. Then I’ll add in exercises where there is some sort of external force trying to move them out of position whilst they try to resist this.
This might be as simple as performing a Squat but with only a single dumbbell in one hand – without good coordination & conditioning their spine would laterally flex towards the side with the dumbbell.
From there, you can get as complicated as you like with your exercises – so long as they are relevant to your sport / daily activities / injury you’re recovering from.
How do I get a ‘6/8/10 Pack?’
You now know you already have one, & you know you need to train it with progressive overload just like any other muscle – the difference here is that there tends to be that annoying layer of superficial body fat hiding all the hard work!
Whilst very few us desire to look like a competitive bodybuilder(!), if we look at the basics of what they train for they might have something to teach all of us.
At their most basic level they are training for strength (that is, increased muscle volume) & they control their diet to remove as much superficial fat as possible.
In many ways is this not what most of us train for – from the health club member to Olympic athlete? We all know that having strong muscles is beneficial & most people would like to lose a little weight or even have a ‘6 Pack.’
As for runners & other athletes..? Think ‘power to weight.’ If you’re carrying around excess adipose tissue (body fat) then that is unlikely to be adding to your performance. Whilst fat has numerous essential functions & I would never advocate the very low body fat levels of the bodybuilder, there isn’t much of an essential function for the layer of fat around our middles!
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